A Night in Miami, Nottingham Playhouse at Bristol Old Vic

FACTION, that mixture of fact and fiction so beloved by TV and film-makers, is the style of writing Kemp Powers chose for his debut play A Night in Miami.

The factual side is that, after he had provided one of the biggest upsets in sporting history by defeating Sonny Lis­ton in February 1964 to become undisputed heavy­weight boxing champion of the world, 22-year-old Cassius Clay, soon to be known as Muhammad Ali, joined three friends, his mentor Muslim minister and human rights activist Malcolm X, singer, songwriter, entrepreneur Sam Cooke and Jim Brown, probably the greatest Running Back American Football has ever seen, in a Miami motel room.

The fictional part is the serious, in-depth discussions and arguments that then took place as each one showed where they stood on the issue of Civil Rights, and what their aims were for their future in this struggle for freedom of expression and opportunity.

Logically, with emotions running at an all-time high after Clay’s stunning victory, Civil Rights, commitment to that cause and to the Nation of Islam (the group in which Malcolm X was so involved  at the time), and determined to bring the newly-crowed heavyweight champion into its fold, would hardly be top of the agenda for this quartet to celebrate the event.

Looking back at that period from a distance of more then half a century, Kemp Powers has not only drawn vivid pictures of the four men, but also drawn strong parallels with the attitudes and stances taken by Black and White citizens in the unrest of 1960s’ America and the present day. He asks whether these four iconic figures could have done more, and better influenced the future, and by leaving a somewhat open ending, suggests that the world has not progressed as far in its relationships between religious, ethnic and political groups as these leading figures would have hoped that it would.

All four characters had colourful lives, albeit in the case of Malcolm X and Sam Cooke short lives, both died within a year of this meeting from gunshot wounds aged 39 and 33 respectively. So you can argue as to how accurate the author’s portrait of them is.

In a way, complete accuracy is not important on this occasion, as each character is used to give expressions of the differing elements of black activists towards Civil Rights. The pent-up anger and frustration of someone who has been struggling for change for years, and now has doubts about some of his fellow leaders, was clearly on view in Christopher Colquhoun’s Malcolm X. No wonder he clashed with Matt Henry’s entrepreneurial Sam Cooke, a man who knew he had missed chances, but was prepared to play the white man’s game until he had the financial clout to hit back.

Twice Matt had the opportunity to sing numbers by the King of Soul (as Sam Cooke was known) and on each occasion he did so with devastating effect.

Another to play the waiting game was Jim Brown, as he moved from football into TV and films, in a rather more controlled manner than the other three. Miles Yekinni  always hinted that Brown was not short of anger and frustration, but more cautious in letting it be seen in public. In many ways Conor Glean had the most difficult task in showing the exuberance of a brash young man still trying to take in the enormity of the feat he had just achieved, but already showing signs of the enormous personality that would emerge as  Clay became Muhammed Ali.

Sometimes you felt that director Matthew Xia had taken too many opportunities to use the Clay character to generate some humour, and in doing so undermined it a little.

That aside, this was an immaculately directed piece, the inset motel room being used ideally. As was the use the director made of the excellently played two cameo roles of the motel guards, Andre Squire bringing a subtle sinister touch to the ever threatening Kareem, and without a hint of overplaying Oseloka Obi found a great deal of humour in the gentler minded Jamaal.


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