Donmar Warehouse, London – until 3 December 2016
AMERICA AT A CROSSROADS, 1964… When Teresa May at the Tory Conference quoted the Sam Cooke lyric “A change is gonna come” , many on the left suffered, not unreasonably, a violent conniption of indignation. A Conservative hijack of a civil rights anthem from the US 1960’s, by a soul genius shot dead not long afterwards!
Yet hey, anyone may respond to a great, wild, yearning song of hope. And by glorious serendipity, the Donmar brings us Kemp Powers’ play, imagining the genesis of that song: a startling, powerful, moving hour and a half directed with heart by our own Kwame Kwei-Armah.
It is the February night when Cassius Clay, only 22, becomes heavyweight champion of the world. He spends it with three friends in a hotel room: the host is Malcolm X, of the black-power “Nation of Islam”, guarded by the devoutly humourless Karim at the door, he is nonetheless shortly to break with it for a less radically racist and segregationist faith and ideology. They’re joined by the football star Jim Brown and Sam Cooke.
The four argue, joke, and needle one another. Malcolm, older, watchful and serious, has converted Cassius; they pray together, and the famous name-change to Muhammed Ali is imminent. The other two laugh about the impossibility of giving up Grandma’s pork-chops and white girls, so muh more “obstreperous” and fun than X’s ‘temple sisters’.
Moreover, Jim is working towards parlaying his sporting fame into a film career, though as ‘sacrificial negro’ his character gets killed early on, and Sam is in love with the idea of connecting with the soul of his white fans as well as his black brothers. Malcolm X taunts him, citing Bob Dylan – a white kid from Minnesota – expressing more anger and rebellion against injustice than Sam.
The men leap, joke and fight, lithe as panthers; the Reverend Minister Malcolm, sometimes visibly irritated, pushes the radical, vital revolutionary line, excoriating the carefree athletes as “monkeys dancing for an organ-grinder.. bourgeois negroes too happy with your scraps”. Sam protests that he liked JFK and that Malcolm’s “chickens come home to roost” comment about the Dallas murder was wrong.
In one fascinating row, the gleamingly black Jim hits back at him with “kinda funny how you light-skinned cats always end up the most militant”. When Sam storms back from a row with a brown-bagged bottle of whisky, the preacher’s sanctimonious “You haven’t considered the offence to brother Cassius, who does not drink now” is met with “You haven’t smelt his breath in the last hour”.
Comic laddishness and earnest idealism, thoughtless energy and political extremism clash and mix at a key moment in America’s struggle towards racial justice. The cast are wonderful: Sope Dirisu as Cassius scampering, dancing, reliving his bout, elastically athletic and merrily bumptious, “OMG why am I so pretty!?”. David Ajala is solid thoughtful Jim, Arinzé Kene a Sam conflicted, angry at insults, creative. Twice, with startling brilliance, he stops the show with real numbers: once leaping through the audience and flirting the front row into giggles with a soulful fully-backed love song, while his young friends fall about hysterically onstage. Then, when he admits he has been writing something different, he delivers a tremendous a capella rendering of the big song. Francois Battiste – the lone American – is a striking, contained Malcolm X: finally moving as his own political change becomes clear. What could have been a static, one-room piece throbs with life and soul and the complexity of the road to justice. Terrific. Sing!
“I was born by the river in a little tent
Oh and just like the river I’ve been running ev’r since
It’s been a long time, a long time coming
But I know a change gonna come, oh yes it will ..”
Box Office: 0844 871 7624 to 3 December
rating Oh, and another one just for Arinzé Kene , as troubadour
Supported by Barclays MS Amlin Simmons & Simmons, Clive & Sally Sherling