REVIEW: “One Night In Miami” at Nottingham Playhouse

What was that awful play I saw about Marilyn Monroe and Albert Einstein meeting in some hotel room? It was an imagined meeting of course, full of theatrical winks when characters refer to things that might happen in the future and the audience feels obliged to laugh because we know whether or not they did. I blame Tom Stoppard for starting this ironic sub-genre with Travesties. A bit too knowing for my taste, and why go to the trouble of creating believable characters when you can use figures your audience already feels it knows? One great thing about KEMP POWERS’ play from 2013 is that it does not fit into that category of play at all.

For one thing, this meeting between legendary figures actually happened. On 25th February 1964 Sam Cooke, Cassius Clay and Jim Brown really did hang out with Malcolm X in his room at the Hampton House Motel in Miami. The four men were friends and this was a time of change for all of them. The dramatic potential is obviously great and this play more than lives up to it.

You can almost smell Miami’s Overtown district thanks to a beautiful set by GRACE SMART. Done out in milkshake tones the spartan room itself sits inside a box, with a balcony rail and cloverleaf breezeblock walls extending from it. Rising behind, a wound-coloured Florida twilight fades into the darkness of a hot night with no breeze to stir the lone sweaty palm tree. Frogs, crickets and the groans of low flying passenger jets complete the illusion, typically fine work from sound designer MAX PAPPENHEIM.

Into this heady environment walk our four legendary men. Clay has just finished winning his first heavyweight championship title. CONOR GLEAN captures the man’s memorable combination of youthful confidence and near shyness in a beautifully thoughtful performance. Nobody in this production is giving an impersonation. These characters are written and played with personality and depth. The pensive stillness of Malcolm X is present and correct but CHRISTOPHER COLQUHOUN conveys the man’s rarely seen worries and doubts too, in such a moving way.

Because specifically American sports tend to travel poorly across the world compared to other sports, Jim Brown is always the most unfamiliar character to me in the play. I watch him with fewer preconceptions. MILES YEKINNI makes him a likeable, believable presence in spite of the arrested adolescence evident in some of the character’s attitudes. This is 1964 after all. Jim is an optimist and maybe this is well founded – he is the only one of the four who is still alive to see himself represented on the stage.

Whenever the four men discuss their futures it is with integrity and restraint on Kemp Powers’ part. Nothing portentous here, though there are moments that make those of us tremble who have outlived most of these men. There are gripping insights into those times in the USA for black men in general and high-achievers in particular. So many frustrations, so many injustices petty and otherwise. And so much of it still familiar after more than half a century. When Sam Cooke treats Jim to a preview of his new song A Change Is Gonna Come it is spellbinding for so many reasons.

One of these reasons is MATT HENRY. It is not only that his singing voice has the soulful sweetness of Cooke’s. The voice is used sparingly for most of the play and instead it is his easy, layered portrayal of the man that grabs attention. Those people who still express the strange belief that actors who excel in musical theatre are not ‘proper’ actors should come and see One Night In Miami. And then spend the rest of their lives apologising for that nonsense. The scene where Cooke’s chatty reminiscence about a gig morphs into the real thing is extraordinary theatre. Henry leaps into the newly-spotlit audience, serenading the unsuspecting and singing out his sweet heart. Suddenly Clay and Brown are looking out from that motel room at us from across the decades. The tables are turned and we are seen.

Director MATTHEW XIA opts to place an interval here. Although this makes for a very short second act, the decision works well. The actors do not have to wait for applause to die down before continuing a scene. We in the audience get the chance to recover from unexpectedly seeing Sam Cooke in concert. And the final, poignant scenes of the play are given an extra focus. The presence of two minders watching X on behalf of Nation of Islam becomes more ominous towards the play’s end. These men have been very well played throughout by OSELOKA OBI and ANDRÉ SQUIRE. The closer the play comes to its conclusion, the harder the future seems to clamour for access to that motel room.

Watching One Night In Miami opens up a curious parallel with Katori Hall’s The Mountaintop. Although they have a common conceit of showing key figures from US black history in motel rooms, they are very different plays in terms of tone and intent. What links them most is their success in showing the true, even mundane humanity of those who have become modern day legends. History and achievements aside, I cherished this opportunity to see black men spending time together as friends. Their humour and teasing, their gentle competitiveness, their natural selves. One Night In Miami is human drama above above all, and beautifully done.

Written by: Kemp Powers

Directed by: Matthew Xia

Christopher Colquohoun (Malcolm X)

Conor Glean (Cassius Clay)

Matt Henry (Sam Cooke)

Oseloka Obi (Jamaal)

André Squire (Kareem)

Miles Yekinni (Jim Brown)

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