It’s February 1964 and the 22 year old Cassius Clay has shaken up boxing by defeating Sonny Liston to become World Heavyweight Boxing Champion. Clay was soon to become a legend in his own time, idolised and adored by whoever we were, wherever we lived (Mark, my date this evening, says his dad used to wake him up in the middle of the night to watch him in action).
One Night in Miami is a fictional account of a real event that happened directly after that celebrated fight, when four friends, each very famous and each fighting the same battle in a different way, met in a Miami motel room. Cassius Clay, Muslim minister and human rights activist, Malcolm X, soul singer, Sam Cooke and football star, Jim Brown get together as One Night in Miami imagines the conversations that took place between these four Black American friends.
The result of Kemp Powers writing and Matthew Xia’s directing is at once entertaining, educational and emotional. We have the benefit of history to know what happened next, what became of these friends (with the exception of Jim Brown, American Football never having translated well to British shores) but in that room, on that night, their futures were unwritten – though here, Malcolm X has an uncanny sense of foreboding, an appropriate paranoia.
Christopher Colquhoun is outstanding as Malcolm X, a man that you feel you’d really like to have talked to, his serious, contemplative nature juxtaposing so well with the playful Sam Cooke, who is portrayed by Matt Henry. It’s obvious that Henry is having great fun in his role and it’s hard to take your eyes of his swagger, while his voice is so bloody good that, after the show, I had to ask whether is was actually him or a Sam Cooke recording (it’s the former; all his own voice). Conor Glen’s Cassius Clay is boyish, eager and, you feel, somewhat malleable. It’s a very tough role to take on because Clay is such an iconic figure and we know exactly how he looked, how he sounded, how he moved but Glen takes the role in his stride. Jim Brown, on the other hand, is not even a name that I know though it doesn’t matter; Miles Yekinni’s version of him is strong (physically too), handsome and likeable, played with confidence and conviction. Joining this all-male, all Black cast are Kareem (André Squire) and Jamaal (Oseloka Obi) who give a frisson of something bordering on sinister to this well-rounded play, hanging around outside the room, poised to investigate any disturbance from within.
Each of the four friends have their own way of helping to empower his fellow Black man, his own place in the fight against white rule. And they won’t always agree that the other is doing it right. But that’s fine because between them they push from all angles; this is the fight of a people and it takes all sorts in a discussion that needs to keep happening. Theatre opens up the debate brilliantly, at least this play does because the conversations in that room spill over from the stage to the bar at Bristol Old Vic and beyond. Everyone leaves animated and wowed by the what they have just witnessed. I gasped audibly at the end.
A simple and colourful set by Grace Smart and sound by Max Pappenheim that is so impressive as to almost become an additional cast member, One Night in Miami is an absolute, definite, don’t miss out, must see.
One Night in Miami plays at Bristol Old Vic until Saturday 29th June and tickets start from £10