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Theatre review: One Night In Miami

Gloves are off:
Miles Yekinni
as Brown (left)
with Conor
Glean as Ali

REVIEW

One Night In Miami

Nottingham Playhouse ★★★★☆

WHAT might Cassius Clay, Malcolm X, soul singer Sam Cooke and American footballer Jim Brown have to say to each other if they were to all find themselves in a Miami hotel room one night in 1964?

Kemp Powers’ 2013 drama, revived at Nottingham, imagines precisely this scenario, inspired by real events of the night Clay became heavyweight champion of the world.

It would prove a pivotal moment — the next morning, the boxer would announce he was joining the Nation of Islam and changing his name to Muhammad Ali, and some months after that both Malcolm X and Cooke would be dead.

Soulful performance: Matt Henry plays musician Sam Cooke, who clashes with Christopher Colquhoun’s Malcolm X

Matthew Xia’s production crackles and smoulders rather than giving knock-out thrills, but four nuanced, banter-fuelled performances keep the audience hooked. Against a sherbet-dip yellow and pink hotel room backdrop, Conor Glean is a bundle of narcissistic, anxious energy as Clay, hastily knocking back whisky the second Malcolm X’s back is turned.

Yet the play’s real focus is the antagonistic relationship between Malcolm X (Christopher Colquhoun — all scholarly, furious puritanism) who believes the civil rights movement requires direct action, and Cooke (The Voice’s Matt Henry, excellent), who prefers the business approach of deliberately targeting the white dollar by racking up sweet-smelling soul hits. The battle lines between them are beautifully drawn — but as Henry delivers a skin-shivering version of A Change Is Gonna Come, you can also sense their growing, uneasy mutual respect.

Powers’ play has a lot of resonant things to say about privilege, and the difficulty of finding a coherent way to combat oppression.

Yet with the final scene closing in on a poignantly isolated Colquhoun, Xia’s production also feels like an equally powerful warning against the doctrine of militant separatism.