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“Why am I so pretty?”

A review of "One Night in Miami" by Kemp Powers.

"All right, can we get this party started now?"

Sam Cooke has turned up to the Hampton House Motel expecting a big celebration with his friends. These include Malcolm X, legendary running back Jim Brown and the man still known as Cassius Clay who, only hours before, became the heavyweight champion of the world. Malcolm X, however, wants them to reflect. Kemp Powers’ play imagines the ice cream-fuelled conversation that followed between these four American icons.

The production at London’s Donmar Warehouse succeeds in portraying a thoroughly believable Ali. Actor Sope Dirisu bounds around the room with Ali’s restless swagger. Writing lines for a man who came up with countless memorable quotes would be a tough ask for any playwright. Copy lines he used in other contexts and it risks sounding forced; come up with completely fresh ones and it risks sounding weak compared to the original. Kemp Powers pulls it off, capturing both the cockiness and the wit:

"They had Joe Louis on one side of the ring, Rocky Marciano on the other. Halfway through the sixth, I saw them looking at each other, like they was asking themselves "why couldn’t we do that when we was young?""

Ali is, as Jim Brown puts it, the "young blood" of the group. He’s naive and sometimes struggles to keep up with the discussion. He is, however, determined to learn; Powers portrays an intellectually hungry young man, always demanding explanations from the others. Ali made these friends for their ideas as well as their parties.

The play’s central debate is between Cooke and Malcolm X. The singer argues that he is advancing the aims of the civil rights movement through being a successful businessman and helping other black musicians to achieve; the activist counters that he should be arguing for the cause in his lyrics. Brown and Ali echo Cooke’s emphasis on economic success. Their discussion on the benefits of having an agent shows their focus on profiting fully from their talents. Brown, however, is aware that making money isn’t the same as having power. He laments that "we ain’t nothing but gladiators and our ruler is still sittin’ up there, in his box, givin’ us the thumbs up or thumbs down. And I don’t want no damn ruler." While Cooke is running his own record label and starting to dictate terms, Brown and Ali are still performers within industries run by others. I couldn’t help thinking of Floyd Mayweather, perhaps the boxer who more than any other has truly taken control of and maximised his earnings.

This question of control comes up again, this time in relation to the civil rights movement:

Malcolm X: You all are our greatest weapons.
Jim: We’re not anyone’s weapons, Malcolm. We’re men!

Neither Cooke, Ali or Brown had any choice about having impact. Their profile meant that whatever they said or however they acted would matter. Malcolm X and Brown’s exchange, however, shows two very different approaches. The former advocates seeing themselves as tools acting on behalf of a united movement; the latter believes that they should act as individuals, doing what they each think is best for the themselves and the cause. The young Ali is caught between these two stances. He is preparing, albeit with some trepidation, to come out publicly as a member of the Nation of Islam, while at the same time determinedly stating that "I got a mind of my own and I make the decisions I know are right for me." 

Watching the play, it is natural to wonder about the burden carried by these men who both excel in their respective fields while also being expected to be leaders in a movement. Ali’s character suggests instead that such a life is balanced, that "being out there in the ring is an escape". He argues that it is the relentless single purpose existence of the campaigner that he fears. It is this sort of life that Ali was forced to live when banned from boxing after refusing the draft.

Malcolm: Our young brother has a lot of potential, does’t he?
Sam: We all do.

What should be a powerful moment of reconciliation between friends after a passionate dispute is overshadowed by our knowledge as an audience of what came next for them; both would be dead within a year of this night. Meanwhile "the young brother" of course became the legend who we have spent recent months commemorating. This play is an intriguing attempt to imagine his early sparks of greatness and the role others played in igniting them.

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