FringeReview UK 2016
Kwame Kewi-Armah directs this 2015 play by Kemp Powers imagining the fulcrum of black struggle in four truly iconic characters, based on real events. Robert Jones’ unfussy motel-room design with hollow walls make this seem a prison without walls. We soon learn it is. Oliver Fenwick’s lighting pinpoints Jones’ lucidity, but with Sam Cooke’s singing John Leonard’s sound design is crucial, particularly as Cooke goes off the rails and into the front row. Duncan McLean’s video design is used, once crucially, three times.
Kwame Kewi-Armah directs this 2015 play by Kemp Powers imagining the fulcrum of black struggle in four truly iconic characters, three of them known here, based on real events. It’s February 25th, 1964, Cassius Clay’s heavyweight championship night beating Sonny Liston (Duncan McLean’s video design is used, once crucially three times), and the prescience of commemorating the man who’s just now changing his name to Mohammad Ali is uncanny. But it isn’t quite his play.
Shrewd footballer Jim Brown has almost as much to say as Clay, turning from football to movies and controlling his destiny; but the two substantial would-be-revolutionaries Malcolm X and Sam Cooke even more, and it’s their relationship swinging literally from fists to embrace and back and forth again, that marks this play’s brilliance.
Robert Jones’ unfussy motel-room design with hollow walls to allow us access to two Brothers of the Nation of Islam make this seem a prison without walls. We soon learn it is. Oliver Fenwick’s lighting pinpoints Jones’ lucidity, but with Sam Cooke’s singing John Leonard’s sound design is crucial, particularly as Cooke goes off the rails and into the front row.
Malcolm X is trying to recruit Clay and in several ways Cooke, though not necessarily we discover, to the Nation of Islam and this dynamic though only etched in, is menacing enough for Malcolm X himself.
Cooke’s successful, founding his own record label, allowing white cover versions to help black artists’ royalties. For Malcolm X, this isn’t enough. At a crucial moment, he plays Dylan’s ‘The Times They Are a Changin’. He thinks to shame Cooke. Cooke has an answer.
François Battiste’s contained powers bring something of the conflict his pristine front’s attempting to mask. He’s uneasy too, joshed about his light skin; you can see his calibrated discomfort, exact as his twin-lens Rolleiflex. One facet of this play is never really seeing characters in isolation, save once. It means a certain interiority, a clue to motives, aren’t brought forth, partly Powers’ caution in attempting to portray famous people who in one case was alive when this premiered. It’s Malcolm X’s profound trouble we miss most.
We’re treated to hints. Entertaining profound doubts over The Nation of Islam we’re treated to moments both comic sand sinister when the two Brothers are either asking for ice cream and autographs (Kareem, played winningly by a wide-eyed Dwane Walcott) or striking Cooke when he goes for Malcolm X; and Josh Williams’ Jamaal, who’s reading upon Native Americans and how white men destroyed them. Williams in this performance is memorable for other reasons.
Sope Dirisu’s Clay bounces beautifully off as he flashes lines in sway to his jab and way, an exhilerating physical performance. Badinage between him and the others focuses on Arinzé Kene’s Cooke, the two keen to enjoy smuggled liquor and jokes on vanilla ice cram and inevitably punning on vanilla women. Cooke’s lilt and dialectical lightness is a match both for Diriscu and Battiste. Most of all however, he sings both his classics and after punches have been thrown and rapprochements made, the great climactic moment centres around his being overheard by the others when he thinks he’s alone. It’s a heartfelt but also heart-stopping moment. Obama himself invoked it: ‘A Change is Gonna Come’. It is too, there’s a coup right at the end Proleptic of what will happen. Before long, two of these protagonists will be dead.
David Ajala lends heft and gravitas to a man who’s known as a footballer but is so much more. n this occasion he was taken ill – the show had started half an hour late – and after Josie Rourke came on to explain – Williams partly read-in, partly took his part from memory. Ironically his small part has an understudy, but not the Brown part; this makes little sense.
There’s a moment that parallels th glow and sometimes cheeky panache of Kene’s singing: the video flickers a history of civil rights, and was it imaginary that Black Lives Matter fitfully shoots across?
The huge cheers all this received and the standing ovation, rare at the Donmar, and almost dangerous, was only in part for the triumphant survival of the performance. It was also for the thrill of a play’s mineral revealed, its theme’s never-completed struggles, above all its emotional impact. Cheered several times through its conclusion was just climactic. An all-black cast has been a long time coming; this work’s even more urgent now human rights in the US and elsewhere are temporarily at the least regrouping. Kwei-Armah’s pace and dance made this beautiful to hear and behold, but even more to absorb.