‘We’re not weapons, we’re men’. The balance between the necessity to voice the race struggle during the fraught 1960s American culture, and the awareness that individual ambition and achievement are equally commendable, is skillfully negotiated between four huge characters in One Night in Miami…
Malcolm X (Christopher Colquhoun), Jim Brown (Miles Yekinni), Sam Cooke (Matt Henry) and Cassius Clay a.k.a Muhammad Ali (Conor Glean) boisterously endeavour to create an evening’s entertainment with minimal alcohol, no food except two tubs of ice-cream and, to Jim Brown’s disdain, no women, in a decidedly not deluxe motel suite.
The confined space of the single room becomes a catalyst for conflict, as Henry as the opinionated Sam Cooke coyly provokes the strong-minded Malcolm X. Their clashing perspectives upon racial integration, as either advantageous or compliant to popular aesthetic, underpin the whole performance, and the variation in opinion allows for an immersive understanding of the difficulty of this generation of African Americans rather than an education of a generic experience.
These moments of conflict, climaxing in physical aggression, are superbly interspersed by Kemp Powers’ writing with humour, high energy physicality and glimpses of vulnerable sincerity. This ensures that the atmosphere is constantly and unpredictably shifting, where a single comment can create taut silence and laugh-out-loud one-liners can pierce through the tension.
Under Matthew Xia‘s direction, we are transported to the ring as Cassius Clay recounts his legendary victory over Liston and to the stage of Sam Cooke’s powerful performances, merely through cleverly created lighting and sound design. This effortlessly ensures that we are visually as well as aurally engaged throughout.
As the play continues, layers are peeled back from these huge characters and we are given an insight into their thoroughly empathetic humanity, making the statement ‘we’re men’ resonate. Powers has created people, rather than personas, and conveys that even those publicly unassociated with the civil rights movement are not unaffected.
There is certainly a shift in the second half of the play. While the song that concluded the first half had a theatrical display of lights and dancing, which left the audience happily humming the tune throughout the interval, the song we leave with is instead an introverted and soulful expression of what will go on to become the anthem of the civil rights movement: ‘A Change is Gonna Come’. Echoing throughout the theatre, as Henry encaptures the spirit and message of Sam Cooke’s most honest song, is the wilful regret of the past and rising hope for the future.
Whether you are an avid historian, culture guru, keen to learn or none of the above and merely desire an entertaining evening, this play will not disappoint. All members of this six strong cast give a stunning, energetic and emotionally connected performance, which deserves a standing ovation.
One Night in Miami… is playing Bristol Old Vic until the 29 June. For more information and tickets, visit the Bristol Old Vic website.