Theatre Review: A point of contention passed over to posterity
One might be forgiven for thinking the play ‘One Night in Miami’ is a nod to the previous American play at the Market Theatre, ‘The Meeting’. That it has a sense of déjà vu. Of course, both were set in a hotel room, both had conversations between Malcom X and prominent black icons during the 1960s, and our point of contact into the play is through the “bodyguards” that these men have. But a more consequential undertaking is being done in this play that differs vastly from the former. By NTATEKO MABASA.
The Market Theatre’s Artistic Director, James Ngcobo, has ventured to another American play. One Night in Miami brings the imagined to reality, showing what would happen if four revered men were to meet one night and have a conversation.
Much like The Meeting last year that had Malcom X meet Martin Luther King Jr, this play gathers together Sam Cooke, Cassius Clay before he became Muhammed Ali, football player Jim Brown and yet again Malcom X. This time the conversations were more playful and the banter, divided between the four men, good-humoured and sharp.
In celebration of Black History Month, the American Embassy in partnership with the Market Theatre put together some talented South African actors to push the conversation forward in the black struggle. While The Meeting was clearly about tactics – MLK’s non-violence position vs Malcom X’s stance of violence by any means necessary, One Night in Miami speaks to another point of contention, an answer to the agonising question: is it even worth it any more?
Jeff Stetson wrote The Meeting in 1987 in commemoration of two figures in the African-American community at a time when there was still a combination of that racism that is just as much overt as it was institutional in the rest of the world, like apartheid South Africa. And so the use of violence was more urgent and a much-heated debate.
So when Kemp Powers wrote One Night in Miami in 2013, it was to go to the next step of the dispute. It was to unearth and explore, through this art form, the stuff that occupies the black psyche. One might say he picked up the baton and, continuing with the good fight, is attempting, as so many others have done before him, to finish the race and to keep the faith for liberation.
Powers’ aim is to reflect and further contemplate the origin as well as the mechanism of the disunity between the black middle class and the poor. And so he bangs together these larger than life personalities and, like a skilled and patient fisherman, waits for a hook, line sinker. He is relentless to remind us of this dispute at every turn, from the bodyguards to the music and even the choice of food they eat.
The similarity in the two plays’ opening scenes, where the two Nation of Islam bodyguards enter, is not a copy of Stetson’s play but rather a continuation of it: this is a sequel. We come back to Malcom X’s hotel room guarded by the Nation, which might as well be the same hotel room where he met Dr King in the previous play.
The two guards are opposite in temperament, the older and senior in rank is strict, tough on his subordinate and uncompromising in his commitment, while the younger is jovial, good-humoured and naïve. The only thing they have in common is their dedication to the Nation. And the Nation, here, does not only mean of Islam but the entire black race.
Their difference in personality is a foreshadow of the differences that Malcolm X, played convincingly by David Arnold Johnson, will have with Sam Cooke, played by Saneliso Dladla, who has such a striking and smooth voice. The backdrop is the 1960s and the Nation of Islam, but it is the universal theme of freedom on the table for discussion. The radical meets the liberal.
Malcom X takes jabs at Cooke for pandering to white folks in his music, when he could be the loudest voice for the Nation. “Why don’t you use the weapon that you have, your voice?” he says to Cooke.
Sam Cooke, who was regarded as the King of Soul and contributed to the rise of Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye and James Brown, was a music mogul who sang soulful music with his smooth vocals. He saw things differently.
To him, if he could work hard enough and reach a certain level of success where the racism does not affect him, then he would have done his part. And then start to pull up other black people to where he was. “Everyone speaks about getting a piece of the pie,” he argues, “I want the whole damn recipe.”
This historic war goes back centuries in black history and reverberates to the present and will affect the future, where men and women in townships, villages and cities across this country are forced to make a choice. Since I have discovered that I am black and the world is white, what is the best way for me to survive? Do I work the system from the inside through accumulation of wealth, status and power, or do I seek to burn the whole thing down and rebuild from the ashes?
Jimmy Brown, played by Richard Lukunku, agrees with Malcolm about the supremacy of racism. “We are all just gladiators and our ruler is sitting over there, giving us a thumbs up or down,” he gestures with his hand, with a thumb moving up and down. Though he would never join the Nation because of his grandmother’s well cooked and delicious pork chops.
Cassius Clay, on the other hand, who has just won a heavyweight championship at the age of 22, against Sonny Liston, sympathises with Cooke that there is no need to call all white folks “white devils”. Lemogang Tsipi portrays a young Mohammed Ali who was proud and cheeky, a young man who was indecisive and passionate. He wants to join the Nation. “Right now I might need a little less swagger and a whole lot of purpose in my life,” he says.
It was these qualities that Malcolm X despised and admired in these men. For Jimmy Brown he saw the clear mindedness to fight, in Cassius Clay he saw youth and an eager mind to mould, but in Sam Cooke he saw pure untainted talent that towers over all of them, a shrewd businessman as well as a true artist.
And yet the rewards that these talents have brought to these men is what Malcolm despises. He could see that the comforts of success had created in them a reservation about revolutionary ideas: a self-preservation.
At the age of 44, Malcolm was the senior of all of them. And like the big brother that he was, he saw it as his duty to be their keeper, to remind them of what is really important.
Though it has its dull moments and dry humour, the play keeps audience members hooked to see what the conclusion to this matter will be.
In The Meeting, we saw a Malcolm X who was tired of fighting. But in One Night in Miami we see a different aspect of Malcolm: he is scared. He fears what will become of him without the Nation after they have kicked him out. And furthermore, who is he without the radicalism and the militancy?
He puts Bob Dylan’s Blowin’ in the Wind on his record player. “How many roads must a man walk down before you call him a man?”
He takes another jab at Cooke, trying to show him, and also to convince himself of the legitimacy of his point of view, that if Bob Dylan, a “white boy” removed from the struggle, can sing about the black struggle and still be number one in the Pop charts, Sam Cooke then has no excuse, if success is what he is after.
This manoeuvre by Malcolm X convinces Cooke, who for the first time becomes sincere about his anger and shame. This then allows Malcolm to be honest about himself as well. “All men have doubts and I’ve never doubted before. I have doubts about my place in the Nation,” he says.
“Sometimes breaking up with the group is the only way,” answers Cooke in an attempt to console Malcolm. Which shows more about Cooke’s philosophy of pulling yourself up by the bootstraps out of the projects.
These are men weighed down by carrying the hopes of their people. By choosing to stand in their respective ways for what they believe. Over time this may have a toll on a person no matter how righteous they think their cause is.
What we are allowed to see is the mental shifts of both men, the internal struggle and the bargaining that one does as they contemplate their place in the greater narrative of black history.
At this moment both men begin truly see one another. And by this sight, are able to recognise themselves in the other. “We should never apologise to each other about being straight up,” says Cooke to Malcolm.
It is as if he is saying to the audience, by directing it to Malcolm, “hold on, brother, though we may fight and differ, I feel the same pain as you, we will overcome eventually”. DM