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Off the Hook

✮✮✮ 1/2

directed by Kwame Kwei-Armah

February 25th 1964. A 22-year old boxer looks into the mirror of a Miami hotel room. “Oh my god…” says Cassius Clay. “Why am I so pretty?”

You can forgive him a little cockiness. He’s just beaten Sonny Liston to become the new heavyweight champ of the world. Kemp Powers’ enjoyable play sets up Clay as a likeably loquacious loudmouth. It may be the biggest night of his life, but One Night In Miami takes Clay off the canvas: inside the ring a more complex match is about to take place.

Robert Jones gives us a piquantly period design, all omelette-yellow carpets and faecal-brown furnishings. Beyond the confines of the dingy room the deconstructed set shimmers with a futuristic sheen. It suggests, as the era itself does, hope – hope, but also fear. Through the nicely open-plan staging, wolfish figures are prowling.

Back at the party, more than one star is lighting up Clay’s celebrations. Joining him are his famous friends: Jim Brown, NFL star, recently dazzled by a stint in Hollywood (“Have you seen the women Rock Hudson gets?!”); and the King of Soul, he of Cupid and Chain Gang fame, singer-producer Sam Cooke. Cooke and Brown have liquor and ladies on their mind, and are expecting Clay to lead the charge. But any such shenanigans are put to bed by the only career politician in the room: Malcolm X. That these four were together on this night is recorded fact – the text smartly speculates from there. It soon becomes clear that Malcolm X, pushed by now to the fringe of his own movement, sees both athletes and the crooner as weapons. And weapons he may well be in need of – the shadow of the Nation of Islam is quite literally out in the corridor.

Over the course of the night Powers treats us to jolly showboating, boyish japes and deft ideological footwork. The plotting may clunk as characters rotate, one by one, round by round, in the ring – but it is a winning snapshot of America in crisis, and one worth examining in the face of Trumpocalypse. Sope Dirisu offers sweetly blunt charm as the soon-to-be Muhammad Ali (“What are you thinking about Cass?” “Honestly? Titties.”) This innocence places him as submissive onlooker, immoveable in the ring but easily manoeuvred outside of it. David Ajala is playfully powerful as Brown, preferring upfront redneck racism to smiling hypocrisy. Dwane Walcott conveys real menace as bodyguard Kareem, his repeated mantra of “God is great” chilling the room every time he slinks in. But it is two others who headline the main event here: Arinzé Kene as the carefree Cooke and Francois Battiste as the fervent Malcolm X. Here we have polar opposites of a kind, their excellent performances as disparate as California sun and blasting desert wind. Cooke comes to represent life in all its weakness and wonder; his attitude towards integration reflects this. He has no problem with his artists’ songs being acquired by The Rolling Stones, seeing it as progressive infiltration (the royalty cheques aren’t bad, either). By contrast, Malcolm X’s quiet incandescence equates with death – sober, nobler, steeped in historical hurt. Both men were murdered within a year of this night, and it is poignant and right that Powers hands the gloves to them.

The play may not be Clay’s, but the questions at its heart complement his sport: what to fight, when to fight, and how to fight. Malcolm X coolly throws Dylan’s Blowin’ In The Wind in Cooke’s face, pointing out “a white kid from Minnesota” is pumping out more political lyrics than the singer’s vibrantly vacuous “I love you I love you I love you”. Brown meanwhile raises an interesting counter-challenge to Malcolm X – whether, being a “light-skinned black”, his crusade is less about confronting white supremacy and more about impressing the black community. The spot-on casting and capable direction of Kwame Kwei-Armah gives the actors ample space to spar with each idea.

The flurry of ideological blows is often softened by spontaneous applause for Kene’s (sublime) renditions of Cooke’s songs. Fitting, perhaps. These were four remarkable men who craved applause, and attention – but had very different notions of what to do with it. By the time Kene gives his gorgeous swansong – “It’s been a long, a long time coming/But I know a change gonna come” – it seems they may have found a tune they can all sing along to.

photo | ©Johan Persson

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