One Night In Miami Not Explosive Enough In Text But Play Delivers in Exposition

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David Johnson in Nadya Cohen’s world in A Night in Miami.

Pictures: Iris Dawn Parker

DIANE DE BEER

ONE NIGHT IN MIAMI

PLAYWRIGHT: Kemp Powers

DIRECTOR: James Ngcobo

CHOREOGRAPHER: Gregory Maqoma

VOICE COACH: Iris Dawn Parker

LIGHTING DESIGN: Wesley France

SET DESIGN: Nadya Cohen

COSTUME DESIGN: Nthabiseng Makone

CAST: David Johnson (Malcolm X), Richard Lukunku (Jim Brown), Lemogang Tsipa (Cassius Clay), Seneliso (Sne) Dladla (Sam Cooke), Nyaniso Dzedze, Sipho Zakwe

VENUE: John Kani at The Market Theatre

DATES: Until February 25

SPONSORED: American Embassy in SA

 

This one is much more about the people on stage than the script. It’s how they bring everything to life, the way the play has been staged and the opportunity for this young cast to test their skills and grow wings – which they will do.

The premise is that four iconic African American men, namely Malcolm X, Cassius Clay (soon to become Muhammad Ali), Sam Cooke and Jim Brown, meet in a hotel room just after Clay had won the heavyweight boxing crown from Sonny Lister.

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Malcolm X (Johnson), Sam Cooke (Dladla) and Jim Brown (Lukunku) in conversation.

Already famous to the outside world, these four friends feel safe in the privacy of the room as they take the gloves off to have some heated conversations. And all of that, who they are and their conversations, is what the playwright imagined would have played out – and more potently, would still be playing out today. That’s the nub of it.

With the two countries having such similar racial track records still today, it has always made sense that especially the race-driven stories play so poignantly here. There’s very little explanation necessary and perhaps that’s the problem with One Night in Miami. It’s just too familiar with very little new, unfolding. It’s almost too predictable, as you know where the conversations are going and how it will develop.

What would have been more exciting in these circumstances and what the director alludes to with the visuals, is the kneeling by NFL players during the American anthem. It’s a play that is screaming to go somewhere explosive. We’re talking of events that took place in 1964, half a century ago for goodness’ sake – and for these men living in the world today, not much has changed. They are still fighting for their lives in many circumstances – daily. Think of the current court case where two white men are charged with forcing a black man into a coffin. Or in the US, #BlackLivesMatter. Really, that still needs saying in 2018?

We’re living in a mad and chaotic world where what is flying around us has overtaken most of what we could possibly imagine – and that makes it tough for works of fiction – (and perhaps why something like Inxeba – The Wound has had such impact. While watching it, it is as if your skin has been turned inside out because of the emotions swirling about.). That’s what the play needs – to make your flesh crawl. The topic in 2018 and the fact that we’re still talking race, demands that.

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Cassius Clay (Lemogang Tsipa) and Malcolm X (David Johnson) in prayer.

But the familiarity of the play aside, what isn’t familiar is the cast, who sets this one alight. It’s a young ensemble with weight, given a chance to test and grow their abilities (especially on stage) and they will. From Johnson, perhaps the more experienced on-stage actor as a quiet yet determined Malcolm X who is dealing with his own demons, and the silky-voiced Dladla as soul singer Sam Cooke who is struggling to make a particular impact on his people, to Lukunku as the imposing Jim Brown who is fighting his own battles for a future when his sporting career comes to an end and Tsipa as the naive and excitable Clay on the eve of change and massive celebrity, they are an imposing bunch – both the characters and the actors who bring them to life.

Add the two sidekicks (Dzedze and Zakwe), playing characters that ostensibly guard the four chums while they chat. Dzedze informs us of what’s to come from the Nation of Islam; and his naïve underling (Zakwe), an excitable and enthusiastic disciple in the making.

It’s all about undertones – where they find themselves at and how to manage their lives, the little they have control over. There’s much jousting, as there would be between vibrant young men, but it takes a while to get to the heart of what Kemp wants to focus on. Because what he’s dealing with is out there, he could have jumped right in rather than crawl. It takes concentration to stay with the conversation.

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Crooner Sam Cooke (Sne Dladla)

But the music alone, magically rendered by Dladla, the performances with heart and an inspired yet subtle staging, all contribute to a play that might not be explosive in text but delivers in exposition.

It could, though, have been so much more.

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