Luna Williams reviews One Night in Miami, recently on at the Home Theatre, Manchester
The first time I read the synopsis for Kemp Powers’ One Night in Miami, I was stunned.
On the evening of 25th February 1964, Cassius Clay (soon to become Muhammad Ali) had just beaten Sonny Liston and been crowned World Heavyweight Champion, in a defeat which launched his career and propelled him into the position in which he remains today: a globally renowned boxer. Instead of celebrating with the rest of Florida, Clay spent his evening in a hotel room in Miami, accompanied only by soul legend Sam Cooke, NFL star Jim Brown, and activist Malcolm X.
For about 30 seconds, I couldn’t quite work out how and why an activist, soul musician, football player, and boxer could become such close friends. Why, I wondered, would these four men, who differed not only in profession but also in age (Cassius Clay had just turned 22; Jim Brown was 28; Sam Cooke was 33; and Malcolm X was close to turning 40) be so close that they would spend such an important night together?
After about 31 seconds, it clicked. The four were tied together by something much bigger than having the same jobs, music tastes, or social circles. All of them were uniquely positioned, as among the few African Americans who had managed to dominate their fields. All had battled (and were still battling) adversity, discrimination and prejudice. And all had earned platforms in which they had more ability to sway public and political opinion than most other members of the black American community.
One Night in Miami is an attempt to imagine and recreate the conversations which could have been shared by them during that evening. Powers’ fly-on-the wall take is a combination of anguish, humour, fraternal friendship and social struggle. Director Matthew Xia approaches this with physical comedy, music, story-telling and impassioned dialogue to depict the fictional scenes between the four protagonists and piece together some form of what might have happened during their evening together.
The play battles with a debate which has been central to all civil rights movements – what is the best way to achieve equality? With anger and purposeful segregation, as in Malcolm X’s argument? Or through adaptation and integration, as in Sam Cooke’s?
Malcolm and Cooke, who take centre stage, debate and unpack this argument. Cooke, who advocates appealing to the white community through music and conversation, maintains a sense of entrepreneurship and optimism in his arguments. In contrast, Malcolm chides Cooke’s attempts to “blend in” with white Americans, telling him he’s no more to his white audiences “than a wind-up doll”.
“People are literally dying,” he tells Cooke, in the heat of one debate, “and you’re too happy with your scraps to notice”.
Before the Civil Rights Act of 1964, racial borders and segregation rules were still in place across most states in the USA. While California, and Los Angeles in particular were seen as more liberal locations in some respects – in the words of Powers’ Cooke “green is the only colour that matters in Hollywood” – both still presented limitations for the black community, and for Cooke himself, despite his legendary status.
This becomes part of the play’s dialogue. While Cooke can perform for white crowds and mingle at white parties, Malcolm reminds him that he still wouldn’t be welcome as a homeowner or tenant in Beverly Hills. With this, Powers’ writing demonstrates the strange limbo-like nature of the four men’s lives.
In the first 20 minutes of the play, when Brown and Cooke try to convince Clay to go out and celebrate his victory with them at a party at Miami beach, it is pointed out that they, as black men, wouldn’t be allowed to sleep in the hotels there.
Likewise, Brown later tells a story about returning to his hometown after he had become famous. While his white neighbour, Mr Cotton, invited him over to his house to congratulate him on his achievements, he was still not invited into the old man’s house. Instead, he signed autographs on the front porch. One Night in Miami thus makes a very important point – there is a difference between acceptance and entertainment.
“I wish the issues addressed in this play felt more like relics of the year in which it was set”, Powers wrote in a foreword for the play this May. “Alas”, he concludes, “the tumultuous political times in which we find ourselves have sadly made this piece feel like it is a reaction to the events of today instead of an exploration of the events of yesterday”.
After watching the play, I couldn’t help but agree with this sentiment. While civil liberties and opportunities for African Americans have come a long way since the 1960’s, One Night in Miami unfortunately didn’t feel like it was that distant.
Instances of racial profiling and police brutality, specifically targeting black men and boys, are still commonplace across the US and have been on the rise since President Trump’s election. In the public sphere, racially motivated hate crime has also risen annually since Trump’s reign, with the number of reported hate crimes motivated by either race, ethnicity or ancestry rising by 17% in 2017, and showing a steady upward trend since his presidency.
Alongside this, and perhaps underpinning it all, there is still a severe wealth gap between black and white families in the USA, with black households earning approximately 10 cents for every dollar earned by white households in 2017.
Cross the Atlantic, and the situation in the UK isn’t much better. Only this May, the UN sent a special rapporteur to investigate the presence of racism, racial discrimination and racial inequality in the UK. According to her findings, every sector, sphere and area of public life demonstrated examples of either racism, racial discrimination or racial inequality. Austerity measures in particular were shown to have had a devastating impact on BAME (Black And Minority Ethnic) communities in the UK, with black families twice as likely to live in persistent poverty than white families in 2017-18.
BAME women in particular have been hit hard. Cuts to public services and local budgets have resulted in various grassroots and smaller women’s charity and community groups closing down, the vast majority of which catered for BAME women-specific needs. To make matters worse, Brexit has also stimulated a spike in hate crime, with figures showing an upward trend (a rise of between 16% and 26% in 2016- 2018) in racially motivated hate crime since the referendum result.
Director Xia describes how One Night in Miami presents four men who are on the “cusp of change”. Whether or not this is the more optimistic change that’s posed in actor Matt Henry’s hauntingly poignant rendition of Cooke’s ‘A Change is Gonna Come’ is uncertain. Change, in itself, is a central theme to the play, and the audience is left with Cooke’s famous, hopeful lyrics ringing in their ears.
As I walked out the theatre, I found myself wondering not only how change in the U.S. was incited in 1964, but also how it can be incited in 2019, in both the U.S. and Britain.