By BRUCE DENNILL
One Night In Miami / Directed by James Ngcobo/ John Kani Theatre, Market Theatre, Newtown, Johannesburg 6
Kemp Powers’ One Night In Miami features four men in a room talking, occasionally interrupted by bodyguards. The Meeting, written by Jeff Stetson and performed during this period – Black History Month – in 2017, featured two men in a room talking, occasionally interrupted by bodyguards. In both cases, one of the men involved was Malcolm X. It’s a programming choice that’s difficult to ignore for Market Theatre regulars, and this later show loses out on some novelty value as a result.
The set-up is fascinating, bringing together a young Cassius Clay (Lemogang Tsipa), fresh from the ring where he has beaten Sonny Liston and become world heavyweight champion; Malcolm X (David Arnold Johnson), Clay’s spiritual mentor and suffering something of a funk having been pushed to the periphery of the Nation Of Islam; Jim Brown (Richard Lukunku), a hulking NFL player commonly regarded as the best of his era; and famous musician Sam Cooke (Seneliso Dladla). The high-profile quartet are good friends, though the strength of character – and ego – that has made each of them a leader in their respective field ensures that there is always an edge to their interactions.
On a small, raised dias in the middle of the John Kani Theatre’s larger stage, the men interact, joke and argue, mulling over their individual achievements and what difference those have or haven’t made. X is the rather morose centre of it all, taking his lead from his religious and personal principles rather than giving in to the celebratory atmosphere the other three are trying to develop in the wake of Clay’s victory. Johnson does a good job of keeping the character consistent and thoughtful, anchoring the more energetic performances of his cast-mates. Tsipa’s athleticism and cheeky delivery make him a convincing Clay, never short of a self-aggrandising slogan; and Lukunku makes Brown – the least well-known figure to South African audiences – appealing. Dladla has arguably the most extensive character arc to play with as Cooke goes from his usual swaggering confidence to nagging self-doubt during the piece, and he handles the role’s musical requirements brilliantly, all but matching Cooke for vocal dexterity and emotional range.
The confining of the action to the limited space of the raised section makes some of the dialogue difficult to hear clearly – it’s set some way back from the front of the main stage, which is problematic when there is such a strong focus on what is being said. Iris Dawn Parker’s voice coaching has given each of the actor’s the identifiable vocal traits of their characters, with Johnson’s adaptation to the unique speaking style of Malcolm X particularly impressive, but again, there are occasional dips in the effectiveness of all that hard work because of the disparity in distance and projection.
Thematically, the pay deals with themes that were problematic in 1964, when it is set, and are still often issues now. There is racism and how to deal with it using politics, or sport, or music – in one memorable scene, X confronts Cooke after playing Bob Dylan’s Blowin’ In The Wind on a turntable, asking him why some “white boy from Minnesota” is writing lyrics more applicable to African Americans’ struggles than chart darling Cooke. There are also philosophical examinations of personal value, of placing the community before oneself and of the motivation behind certain actions. Some of it is thought-provoking, some of it is funny – usually where Clay or Cooke is involved – but some of it is simply earnest, without any real incisive intent. As such, the piece is unevenly paced and, while the two bodyguards (Nyaniso Dzedze and Sipho Zakwe) add sporadic comic relief, they also occupy scenes that don’t feel particularly pertinent to the main thread taking place in the hotel room.
There are sparkling and intellectually potent moments in the play, but there are as many flat spots, making it possible to like the piece, but difficult to love it.