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My knowledge of the US civil rights movement in the 60’s was weak, but is stronger for seeing this excellent play by American Kemp Powers; I love it when I learn something at the theatre.

The night in question is the one when Cassius Clay, as he was then called, beat Sonny Liston to win his world title in 1964. He’s in a hotel room with friends Malcolm X, soul singer Sam Cooke and footballer Jim Brown. Outside the room there are two security guards placed there by The Nation of Islam to protect their spokesman.

It’s a pivotal point for all four. Clay is about to convert to Islam and change his name to Mohammed Ali. Cooke has written his civil rights anthem, A Change Is Gonna Come, but will soon meet his untimely death. Brown has commenced his second career, acting in his first film. Malcolm X is about to quit The Nation of Islam.

They debate the issues of civil rights and their differing attitudes and perspectives. Malcolm X may not be as hard line as they thought and the guards may be as much to control as protect. Is Sam Cooke selling his soul as he sings it? Clay’s conversion may be a touch reluctant. Is Brown ignoring what’s going on around him and just concentrating on having a good time? It’s a fascinating debate, without being preachy or earnest, and packs a lot into a well written, entertaining 90 minutes.

Six fine performances too. Arinze Kene brings Cooke to life, singing superbly. Sope Dirisu’s characterisation of Clay is playful and spot on. Francois Battiste captures Malcolm X at a turning point, still defiant but inwardly doubting. David Akala’s Brown is the good-time guy and there’s fine support from Dwane Walcott and Josh Williams as the two contrasting guards. I’d wondered why we’d not seen or heard from director Kwame Kwei-Armah for so long. It appears he’s been directing and running theatre companies in the US. It’s good to have him back, though I’m not sure how long that’s for.

Another fine evening at the Donmar.

 

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