With all eyes on Manchester because of the International Festival and tourists in town keen to see something thought provoking and different, now is the perfect time for a play about four civil rights icons.
Kemp Powers wrote One Night in Miami about a meeting between Muhammad Ali, Malcolm X, Sam Cooke and Jim Brown, four black men who refused to be silent about the injustices taking place all around them.
These four titans were friends in real life. But what they talked about in a Miami hotel room in 1964 is not known, so Kemp takes themes which are still relevant today and creates a gripping drama of discussions, debates, and songs, with words batted back and forth like a battered and bruised tennis ball being struck by Wimbledon champions.
What makes this play so fascinating and at times disturbing is the fact that sadly none of the issues that addressed have been consigned to the past. Think about contemporary trail blazers such as Serena Williams, Janelle Monae, Skepta, Lupita Nyong’o and Donald Glover, and each of them still face prejudice and criticism as well as plaudits.
Sam Cooke may have sold millions of records and was known as the king of soul but was he permitted to have a voice as a black man instead of simply pleasing the masses? This is debated with intelligence and passion by Powers in this pertinent, powerful and relevant piece, persuading you that this is not over and done with.
Another striking thing about the play is how the the representation as you watch well known figures, and become a fly on the wall. This means that their TV personas are not required. So instead of a showman who talks in rhyme, bouncing his words like a rubber ball, Muhammed Ali is 22 year old Cassius Clay in awe of Cooke and Malcolm X.
Malcolm X is not the man of soundbites we know from news footage. Here, he is a man who is earnest and willing to debate and question everything he sees. But with Cooke willing to take him on, he has to concede. Without the aid of microphone and a following, he becomes less iconic.
Jim Brown, the NFL star turned Hollywood actor, feels a tad underwritten, but he is given some great argumentative lines which add to the mix, providing all the ingredients for an intoxicating evening.
The play feels uneven due to an overlong first half. It’s as if director Matthew Xia does not want to finish these stimulating conversations and I can see why. But it means that the second half is less than thirty minutes long.
But the performances are so terrific that you really believe you are watching these enigmatic men chew the fat. At times the effect is like drinking hard liquor straight up.
Matt Henry captures Cooke’s soul both during the musical interludes and his arresting arguments which provide balance and a steadfast common sense approach. This contrasts with Christopher Colquhoun’s mighty Malcolm X, who is quietly convincing.
Connor Glean’s Cassius Clay has learned to fight, but saves his showmanship for the camera, so we see a young man filled with hope and ready to fight for what he believes in outside of the ring.
Jim Brown, the voice of reason, and is the least known of these titans to UK audiences, but Miles Yekinni does well, making him memorable.
One Night in Miami offers stimulation, wit, strongly considered arguments, music and history. In a world in which everything seems to be reduced to a twitter spat where you either agree or disagree, this is not merely a period piece, it is a play for our times. I urge you to see it.
One Night in Miami is at HOME until 5th July.