America changed in 1964. The U.S. entered Vietnam, the Civil Rights Act was passed and The Beatles led a British Invasion that would fundamentally alter pop music forever. In the wider scheme of things, a boxing match seems almost trifling.
Yet Kemp Powers’ 2013 debut play, One Night in Miami, here revived by director Matthew Xia in a touring run currently performing at the Bristol Old Vic, presents the shocking victory of Muhammad Ali over Sonny Liston as a turning point for the identity of African Americans, the play breezily exploring ideas of black representation, self-expression and empowerment.
Set in the immediate aftermath of the fight, the play is inspired by a real-life meeting of four famous friends; Muhammed Ali (Conor Glean) - then Cassius Clay - accompanies political firebrand Malcolm X (Christopher Colquhoun) to a motel rented by the Nation of Islam (of which they were both at that point reluctant members), where they chat the night away with pop singer Sam Cooke (Matt Henry) and football star turned actor Jim Brown (Miles Yekinni).
The play’s loose structure and low stakes are disrupted by the lurking presence of two Nation of Islam security guards, seemingly there for protection but who - as Malcolm X’s precarious, paranoid position in the organisation reveals - may well be more like jailers. Grace Smart’s set design captures the naff chintziness of ‘60s Americana whilst never allowing the two guards out of our sight, a looming danger that unfortunately never quite registers the way it could amidst the play’s relaxed, buoyant atmosphere.
Indeed, if there’s a problem with One Night in Miami it’s its slightness. The play is pleasant and lands on some genuinely radical ideas amongst easy laughs and relaxed ambience, yet the themes at play are never quite translated into genuinely compelling drama. The play’s climax pits Henry’s Sam Cooke and Colquhoun’s Malcolm X into a war of words, where the former accuses the latter of radicalism and - in the play’s most subversive moment - even of pursuing his dogmatic views as a way to distract from the lighter tone of his skin. Meanwhile, X excoriates Cooke for what X views as pandering to a white audience and political ambivalence in the face of oncoming change for African Americans. The exchange should be an electrifying and climactic denouement, yet the decision to place an interval 57 pages into a 75 page script derails whatever momentum the play might have been building, and so the climax feels sudden and unearned.
There’s also some nitpicking to be had with the script; perhaps Cooke wasn’t as politically engaged as he could have been before he wrote A Change is Gonna Come (which the events of the play predate), but would Malcolm X really have failed to see the political connotations of a song like Chain Gang, a song partly inspired by James Baldwin? Such contradictions never quite arise in Powers’ script, rendering the ideological battle at the play’s centre a bit less complex than it actually might have been.
Still, the play remains watchable and compelling on account of its titanic performances. Henry neatly pastiches Cooke’s singing voice in a couple of entertaining musical interludes whilst replicating the singer’s affable persona. Yekinni nails the punchlines as Jim Brown, whilst Glean excellently embodies Ali’s physicality and brashness, although the production perhaps doesn’t find the subtle wit simmering under the surface of interviews with Ali; he’s all swagger and no soul.
Indeed, it’s Colquhoun who truly steals the show as Malcolm X. Expertly impersonating the man’s deep timbre and statesmanlike demeanour, Colquhoun never misses a beat; he holds the weight of the world on his shoulders, beautifully conveying the deep paranoia and crushing responsibility of being a national figurehead betrayed by his own people (both the US government and the Nation of Islam, both of whom had X followed, the latter ultimately murdering him). Indeed, Colquhoun’s X seems desperately aware of his own mortality, and buoyed by a desperate desire to change things in what little time has has left.
It’s a shame that the progressive performances are undersold by a curious lack of directorial ambition. Xia’s production of Blue/Orange at The Young Vic in 2016 remains one of the best productions I have ever seen, a taut whirlwind which flirted with several non-naturalistic techniques including promenade theatre in order to place the audience in the mind of a terrified, clinically ill person. This production, for all its charms, lacks the same energy and vitality. There are still signs of directorial flair; at one particularly tense point, Cooke breaks the fourth wall as he leaves the stage, ignoring the door of the motel and simply walking out towards the audience and into the wings. It’s a clever little moment, yet I longed for more like it.
Still, One Night in Miami is a thoroughly watchable production, with gentle laughs and charismatic performances. It sneakily works in some legitimately subversive ideas into its political discussions whilst otherwise offering some pertinent and current discussion of modern ideas of race and racism. Perhaps it is the fact that the production clearly has so much more to offer that left me feeling underwhelmed. Ultimately, there’s a sense that this production pulls its punches.