The Donmar Warehouse’s staging of Kemp Powers’ play about legendary boxer Muhammad Ali could scarcely be more timely. One Night in Miami… explores the events of the night Ali was crowned Heavyweight Champion of the world, changed his name and joined the Nation of Islam. The play premiered in 2013, but given Ali’s death and the continued rise of Islamophobia throughout the West, it’s now more powerful and poignant than ever.
When Ali died in June this year, the internet reacted with a mass outpouring of emotion. In a year that has been marked by a string of high-profile losses (Bowie, Rickman, Wood, Wogan), the reaction to Ali’s death was notably different. The online dialogue sparked by the announcement of his death was more contentious, and far uglier.
When Donald Trump tweeted a tribute to the legendary boxer’s life, hundreds of angry tweeters slammed his hypocrisy, furiously pointing out that Ali, a devout Muslim, would be banned from Trump’s America. Piers Morgan, never able to resist an internet mud fight, waded into the fray to defend Trump, tweeting: “Muhammad Ali said far more inflammatory/racist things about white people than Donald Trump has about Muslims. #fact.”
And so it went on, with thousands of outraged tweets, several self-righteous opinion articles in the press and a lot of ranting. Eventually it all died down, but the incident has served as a reminder of the many facets and perceptions of Ali.
Powers’ gripping play shows us how Cassius Clay became Muhammad Ali and started down a road that would eventually see him denounce ‘the white man’ as the devil. It’s a glimpse of the shaping of the cocksure young Ali (Sope Dirisu) by the Nation of Islam’s smooth-talking front man Malcolm X (Francois Battiste).
The 22-year-old Cassius Clay bounds onto the stage, fresh from the fight and ready to celebrate his win with his best friends – NFL star Jim (David Ajala) and soul singer Sam (Arinze Kene). But instead, the night turns into a tense battle of wills. Mirroring the ideological battle that bubbled away under the surface of the 1970s civil rights movement, One Night in Miami… encapsulates the struggle for dominance between four very different reactions to racial inequality.
It’s a very strong cast. Disuru’s performance fizzes with power and mischief opposite Battiste’s charismatic but quietly suspicious Malcolm X. Kene brings passion and poise to the role of Sam, earning a huge round of applause for his rendition of ‘A Change Is Gonna Come’. Ajala is boisterous and likable as Jim.
Powers’ dialogue is lyrical and layered with meaning. It hints at the myriad conflicts that lie in the background of that night in Miami, and it’s heavy with the dramatic tension of the events we know are yet to unfold. This play is a skilfully crafted snapshot that reveals a pivotal moment in the history of the Black Power movement.
One Night in Miami is on until 3rd December 2016 at the Donmar Warehouse. Click here for more details.