The night of the title is February 25 1964, the night after the legendary fight between Muhammad Ali – then still known as Cassius Clay – and Sonny Liston in the heavyweight world championship. Playwright Kemp Powers zooms in on an after party, of sorts, where Ali and his friends – singer and songwriter Sam Cooke, American footballer Jim Brown and black rights activist Malcolm X – met in a small motel room and laughed, sang and argued all night.
In a way, Powers’ play is another kind of boxing match. In the ring are four men famous for different reasons, but united in their friendship and their own individual attempts to challenge the racist and unequal society they were living in. In one corner is the Nation of Islam spokesman Malcolm X who sees Cooke’s potential as a voice in the fight for black rights and wants the singer to dedicate himself to the cause. In the other corner is Cooke, who is not interested in being teetotal and abstinent, he just wants to party. Inbetween them is the brilliantly boastful 22 year-old Ali – on the verge of joining the Nation of Islam – and the worldly wise Brown who shuns X's hard-line ideologies.
It’s a fictional account, and it may sound a little dry, but Powers' funny, agile dialogue keeps things moving at an athletic pace. After rounds of batting their opinions back and forward, often the tension is broken by a lighter, funnier line – "I’m way too pretty not to be in the movies" quips Ali at one point. Powers also uses hindsight to create several witty moments including Brown's reaction to Ali's new name: "Shit that’s gonna be hard to remember".
One Night in Miami looks at the arguments behind some of what was happening at the time in America. It polarises X and the Nation of Islam's focus on segregation with Cooke’s attempts at integration from within the white establishment. It is a fascinating portrait of four fascinating men. Kwame Kwei-Armah‘s taut direction keeps them in the ring of the motel all night and still manages to keep the thread of argument dynamic.
Ali’s is the only part that feels underwritten in this play and Powers has him as an innocent – he is easily influenced by both Cooke and X, swaying either way like long grass. Sope Dirisu plays him with a beautiful, believable, vibrant and naïve energy and his portrayal is one among four uniformly excellent performances. There’s palpable conflict in Francois Battiste’s very strong depiction of X, while David Ajala is great as a wise and likeable everyman Brown. Arinze Kene is a superb Cooke, who regularly breaks out into song, and has a voice that channels the old master uncannily. If you are a Cooke fan, it is a treat to hear him sing. These are four excellent actors with meaty roles and it is worth seeing the play for their performances alone.
By the end, Kwei-Armah links the '60s to today to remind us how far we have still got to go in the fight against racism and for equality. As Cooke’s song "A Change is Gonna Come" rings out towards the end, you can only hope that the song's title is still true.
One Night in Miami runs at the Donmar Warehouse until 3 December.