26 October 2016, The Tablet

Boxing clever


 

Several exchanges in One Night in Miami – an award-winning American play now given its European premiere at London’s Donmar Warehouse – feel accidentally Shakespearean, as a character with a name from Macbeth – Malcolm – shares the stage with someone called Cassius, also found in Julius Caesar.

As the people in question are the American civil rights activist Malcolm X and the boxer Cassius Clay (as he was known at the time of the action), dramatist Kemp Powers is guided by biographical truth rather than literary metaphor. But the overlap feels appropriate as Powers’ drama, in common with Shake-speare’s Scottish and Roman plays, explores national identity, ideological intrigue and the extent of divine interest in human affairs. There is also an echo of Coriolanus in that the protagonist is a man who, after a martial victory, takes on a new name.

The setting is the Hampton House Hotel in Miami on the night of 25 February 1964, soon after the 22-year-old Clay has beaten Sonny Liston to become world heavyweight champion. The boxer has come to a budget room rented by Malcolm X, bow-tied Nation of Islam bodyguards standing sentry outside, to undergo his official transition to Islam, taking the name of Muhammad Ali. The champ has brought an entourage of two other African-American cultural heroes, footballer Jim Brown and singer Sam Cooke, who, at the moment, still know their friend as “Cash”.

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