Four of the most influential black American men in popular culture assemble in a single, drab motel room on the eve of a world about to irreversibly change forever. Whether fictional or not, the final minutes of Kemp Powers’ One Night In Miami crackle with the magnitude of the situation. On this evening, Cassius Clay (Sope Dirisu) is named Heavyweight Champion and converts to the Nation of Islam, Sam Cooke (Arinzé Kene) pens (and flawlessly sings) “A Change is Gonna Come” and Malcolm X (Francois Battiste) confirms his suspicions about his fanatical religious sect – a lot of intense, emotional turning points to fit into a 90 minute production. Powers’ script tackles some huge narrative challenges head on, the result of which is a powerful play, a rarely seen mix of poignant political and religious debate with light-hearted comedy and human pathos. One Night in Miami has the charm of Cooke, the power of Clay and the intelligence of X.

The set is intentionally underwhelming in its simplicity; Robert Jones stays true to the basic convenience of the motel room, juxtaposing the simple scene with strip lighting that adds dimension to elevate the action that unfolds upon it. A show with multiple layering, all actors are able to offset serious, passionate acting with a youthful male arrogance that conceals the conflicting moral dilemmas within. Each of the four members of the group – Cooke, Clay, X and American football star Jim Brown (David Ajala) – is a believable storyteller, taking centre stage at different moments to flex their creative muscles. Powers pays homage to each of these real life stars by allowing the actors space to reveal their inner selves to the audience, a show of vulnerability that reminds all of the humanity lying beneath the iconic status. Kwame Kwei-Armah directs each to appeal to both fanatic audience members and those seeking to learn more about the people forced into the spotlight, not always unwillingly it must be said.

It is easy to see why these four are friends – different career paths, each pursuing their passion and expressing their truth, but similar character traits that bind each individual together. Whether it be exercise, women, music or prayer, each has their ritual, their belief and their faith in something out of their control. Each actor has a clear grasp on his character’s motivation and personality and interact so seamlessly as friends it is easy to be swept up in the conversation. In a well-chosen cast that all give empowering performances, it is Kene that stands out by the end. As Cooke, he walks the longest, rockiest path and comes out the other side with a heart-breaking vocal rendition of “A Change Is Gonna Come”, the defining message that pervades all aspects of the show.

With so many turning points that add new meaning to the events unfolding, an audience can easily forget that One Night in Miami is a one-act play. A multitude of twists and turns in a script that doesn’t need an interval to build anticipation and excitement, The Donmar Warehouse brings another empowering production to its award-winning stage.

One Night in Miami is playing at the Donmar Warehouse until December 3. For information regarding their ‘Young and Free’ promotion, offering free tickets for under-25s, see here.

Photo: Johan Persson