Review + Production photos: Verbal punch up in One Night In Miami, Donmar Warehouse
Four men in a room: Cassius Clay (Sope Dirisu) on the cusp of becoming Mohammad Ali, singer Sam Cooke (Arinzé Kene), football player Jim Brown (David Ajala) and activist Malcolm X (Francois Battiste). They have gathered to celebrate Clay becoming heavyweight champion of the world. Each is successful and well known - iconic - in their own right but this is on the eve of the civil rights movement and they know the limitations of their fame.
Kemp Powers' punchy play sees a party mood turn into a heated debate about black power, integration and the responsibilities of fame.
Clay is on the one hand supremely confident and yet has gentler, innocent side that is incongruous with his boxing prowess. Brown is pragmatic about milking his fame to get a career in the movies as his football playing days come to an end. He is also acutely aware of how far society will allow him to integrate, telling of his hero's return to his home town only to realise that a white man won't entertain him inside his house.
Cooke has an independent record label where he can promote black artists but also believes in integration. He tells of his determination to find the key to entertaining the white audience and, in one of the highlights of the play, demonstrates his technique leaping off stage to sing directly to people on the front row (yes I was one of them and as Libby Purves gave Arinzé Kene his own star in her rating I'm guessing she was too).
It is Malcolm that is the real challenger of the group and he particularly guns for Cooke whom he thinks should be using his music to spread important messages. He teases him comparing his love songs to Bob Dylan's campaign songs and accusing him of selling out. But Cooke wrong-foots him in what is the main bout of the play.
One Night In Miami is, however, a play that proves you can properly explore serious subjects and still be engaging and entertaining - and you can do it in under 2 hours - it's 90 minutes straight through. Crucially, it is a play that feels of our times even though it is set in the 1960s.
Great performances from the cast and great singing from Arinzé Kene, I'm giving it four stars. See it at the Donmar Warehouse until 3 December.