Life, etc

Theatre Review: A sense of déjà vu surrounds One Night in Miami

The show, One Night in Miami… involves a meeting between four iconic black men whose playful banter erupts into intense debate about racism and how to fight it. But didn’t we have that in a play just last year? By LESLEY STONES.

There’s a sense of déjà vu in watching the latest play chosen for Black History Month at the Market Theatre.

The show, One Night in Miami…, involves a meeting between four iconic black men whose playful banter erupts into intense debate about racism and how to fight it.

Didn’t we have that in last year’s play, The Meeting, you might think? Well, sort of. Except that that had Malcolm X meeting Martin Luther King in a hotel room in Harlem, and now Malcolm X is meeting Cassius Clay, Sam Cooke and Jim Brown in a hotel room in Miami.

It’s also similar in that first we meet the bodyguards before the great men arrive, and it’s the guards who add much of the humour. Still, there’s no such thing as a unique idea, so let the debate begin.

One Night in Miami… by Kemp Powers was first staged in 2013 but is set in 1964, and is shot through with arguments about Islam plus the full spectrum of racism, from the ingrained attitude of white folks that subconsciously influences their behaviour to the overt “no blacks allowed in this establishment” variety.

With firebrand activist Malcolm X, boxing champ Cassius Clay as he’s about to convert to Islam and become Muhammad Ali, soul singer Sam Cooke and footballer Jim Brown, we have a great array of characters and opinions to spark inflammatory conversations.

But for much of the time the play dutifully plods along, feeling worthy, wordy and rather dull. There are flashes of anger that light up the action, and comic moments from Lemogang Tsipa as Cassius Clay, who moves beautifully and clowns around delivering the boxer’s famous self-promotional patter delightfully. He also switches well into thoughtful mode when the mood changes into deep discussion.

The highlights, however, are the musical moments where Seneliso Dladla as Cooke belts out A Change is Gonna Come to rich applause, or jumps down to the front of the stage to perform a nightclub croon.

The first time he jumps towards the audience forces you into noticing how the stage design also affects the impact of the show. Director James Ngcobo has put these men on a pedestal, metaphorically and literally, with a stage set that’s raised at the back where the characters are meeting. Yet we feel most connected when Dladla brings the action closer.

It feels wrong that the music was more riveting than the dialogue, especially since there are important issues at play and some sharp insights shared. The moments when Malcolm X (David Arnold Johnson) is pontificating piously about how Cooke is doing little to help black liberation because he’s not writing songs that challenge and provoke is a verbal highlight, but for regular visitors to the Market Theatre, much of this is familiar territory in other plays that delivered more fizz and firepower.

All the actors give a great performance with an easy interaction between them. The main quartet is completed by Richard Lukunku who captures the hulk and jocularity of footballer Jim Brown. “Do you expect a dog to give you a medal because you don’t kick it that day?” he rumbles, as he describes how an old white man chatted pleasantly to him – but kept his black ass outside on the veranda.

Black History Month is an annual commemoration of important people and events, which the Market Theatre celebrates with a play supported by the US Embassy. This year it’s moved its chosen production from one of its smaller stages to the large main stage, and I fear it’s going to be a stretch to fill those seats.

I ended up wondering if black audience members would enjoy it more than I did, and better appreciate its banter and fine-grained analysis of the best way to wipe out racism. Go along and let me know. DM

One Night in Miami… runs at the Market Theatre until 25 February. The theatre is running a special of buy four tickets for R50 each and get four free. Tel 083 246 4950.

Photos: Iris Dawn Parker