One Night In Miami (Nottingham Playhouse)

25 February 1964: Cassius Clay is crowned the new heavyweight champion of the world and celebrates with three of his closest friends – activist Malcolm X, American football icon Jim Brown and soul star Sam Cooke – in a downtown Miami motel room.

That much we know is true. What follows is an imagined account of a fabled real-life event.

Kemp Powers’ tough-talking, in-your-face drama speculates on what might have happened in that room that night. Over music, whiskey and two tubs of vanilla ice cream, the men wrangle with the change that’s gonna come. What will emerge are four legends that would define an era.

Directed by Matthew Xia (director of 2018’s acclaimed production Shebeen), One Night in Miami… is a play about prejudice and brotherhood, and asks us: on which side of the fence do we stand when hard choices need to be made?

★★★★ The Stage, J N Benjamin - 'superb performances':

'Matthew Xia’s production of the play brings forth the multidimensional experiences of blackness – these men are united in their race and gender but so different in many other ways. It’s refreshing to see four black men take centre stage, with a nuanced portrayal of their differences, as well as their similarities.

The ensemble cast is superb, with real chemistry and an excellent sense of balance. Glean’s Clay is curious and excitable, qualities offset by Colquhoun’s cooly controversial Malcolm X. Yekinni brings a wise energy to his Jim Brown; he binds the group together. There’s a standout performance from Kinky Boots star Matt Henry, whose pitch perfect vocals are a supreme match for Sam Cooke’s classics.

Powers’ play is set in the 1960s but has many parallels with 21st-century society. This timely revival raises many questions for which black people are still searching for the answers more than half a century later. It makes you wonder when, exactly, a change is gonna come.'

★★★★ The Metro, Claire Allfree:

'Matthew Xia’s production crackles and smoulders rather than giving knock-out thrills, but four nuanced, banter-fuelled performances keep the audience hooked. Against a sherbet-dip yellow and pink hotel room backdrop, Conor Glean is a bundle of narcissistic, anxious energy as Clay, hastily knocking back whisky the second Malcolm X’s back is turned.

Yet the play’s real focus is the antagonistic relationship between Malcolm X (Christopher Colquhoun — all scholarly, furious puritanism) who believes the civil rights movement requires direct action, and Cooke (The Voice’s Matt Henry, excellent), who prefers the business approach of deliberately targeting the white dollar by racking up sweet-smelling soul hits. The battle lines between them are beautifully drawn — but as Henry delivers a skin-shivering version of A Change Is Gonna Come, you can also sense their growing, uneasy mutual respect.

Powers’ play has a lot of resonant things to say about privilege, and the difficulty of finding a coherent way to combat oppression.

Yet with the final scene closing in on a poignantly isolated Colquhoun, Xia’s production also feels like an equally powerful warning against the doctrine of militant separatism.'

★★★ The Times, Sam Marlowe:

'Powers’s writing is trenchant yet wonderfully light on its feet, and Matthew Xia’s regional premiere is absorbing, evocative and charismatically performed.

Grace Smart’s pink, orange and pistachio set and Max Pappenheim’s sound design of crickets, barking dogs and wailing babies persuasively conjure up the sweltering downtown neighbourhood where Christopher Colquhoun’s taut, rangy Malcolm X has rented a modest single room. Two besuited Nation of Islam bodyguards are on duty at the door, although it becomes ominously clear that their job is as much to keep Malcolm in as it is to keep trouble out.

Malcolm and Matt Henry’s smooth, simmering Sam clash over Cassius’s plan to join the NOI, while Conor Glean’s Clay is irresistible, his exultant delight in his own talent and charm (“Why am I so pretty?”) combined with rage and spiritual hunger. Miles Yekinni as a wise, witty Jim, potent in his self-containment, questions and mediates, quietly disrupting the combatants’ assumptions about themselves and each other.

Xia turns Sam’s two musical moments into showstoppers. It’s thrilling, not least thanks to Henry’s exquisitely soaring vocals, but the sublime A Change Is Gonna Come would deliver an even more affecting and politically articulate moment in stripped-down form. Still, this is intelligent, impassioned and piercingly pertinent.'

★★★ The Guardian, Mark Lawson - 'pitch perfect performances; 5-star acting':

'In this 2013 play by Kemp Powers, enterprisingly revived in Nottingham three years after it had its UK premiere at London’s Donmar, the four African American leaders in their fields box ideologically about whether racism is best countered through cooperative assimilation or radical opposition.

The 95-minute multi-biographical anecdote is given extra heft by knowledge of what followed. The beautiful, amusing, vibrant fighter – tremendously embodied by Conor Glean – will become the increasingly angry and ailing Ali of later years. And, within 12 months of this meeting, both Malcolm X and Cooke had been murdered.

Christopher Colquhoun’s Malcolm is a convincing mix of piety, menace and insecurity (including, in the boldest dramatic stroke, doubts regarding his skin colour). The play is hard to cast because it requires a lead who can do a pitch-perfect impersonation of Cooke’s singing, while holding his own in complex four-way dialogues, but Matt Henry, as he did in Kinky Boots, catches the eye and ear in every moment. As Brown, the least-famous and least-written of the main roles, Miles Yekinni is convincingly a black celebrity who has opted to pretend America is simpler and better than it is. PS. Five-star acting gets only three-star presentation.'

 

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MALCOLM X/ Chris Colquhoun
SAM COOKE/ Matt Henry
CASSIUS CLAY/ Conor Glean
JIM BROWN/ Miles Yekinni
KAREEM/ André Squire
JAMAAL/ Oseloka Obi
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SOPHIE PARROTT CDG