Muhammad Ali did not celebrate his 22nd birthday in the way that most men his age might have chosen. Despite the fact that he had just become the new world heavyweight champion, he spent his birthday evening in a hotel room chatting to three of his closest friends: Sam Cooke, Malcolm X and the American football star Jim Brown. This meeting, and the friendships between the four men, are the subject of the Donmar Warehouse’s new play, ‘One Night in Miami’.
Directed by Kwame Kwei-Arman, the play takes place at a crucial moment in American history. The date is 25 February 1964 and the country stands on the cusp of social and economic change. Two of the men, Muhammad Ali (or Cassius Clay, as he was then known) and Malcolm X, are heavily involved in the civil rights movement, but at odds over the direction the movement should take. Their friends, Sam Cooke and Jim Brown, are on the periphery of the movement but arguably more focused on their careers; indeed, Jim Brown’s career in movies is just taking off.
During the course of the play we see the four men argue, ruminate, banter, debate, fall out and reconcile. Thanks to acting of the highest quality this is moving, stirring stuff and it’s impossible not to be gripped by the emotions on display and the feeling that, at long last, anything is possible. That said, the main difficulty the play faces is its length: 80 minutes simply isn’t long enough to do more than scratch the surface of the issues it purports to tackle. Arguably, this is a play more about friendship than anything else – with the added poignancy that two of the men present would die tragically young.
There’s a compelling turn by Francois Battiste as the highly principled Malcolm X, although Arinzé Kene all but steals the show when the hotel room transforms itself into a concert venue and he bursts, memorably, into song. Muhammad Ali’s character, however, is woefully underdrawn and there are few hints as to his charisma or of the hugely influential personality he would become. And it was never going to be easy for David Ajala, as Jim Brown, to win the audience over – even though Jim is still alive, and still in the public eye in America, very little is known about him on this side of the pond.
Overall, an entertaining evening, but perhaps not quite as memorable as I expected. A visit to the Donmar Warehouse is always a treat, though (thanks Alfred!) and the play certainly provided plenty of food for thought. In these troubled times, can we truly say that we have learned from the lessons of the past, or are we destined to make the same mistakes all over again?