“Why am I so pretty?” asked Cassius Clay – as he was called back in 1964 – on the night he defeated Sonny Liston to become the heavyweight champion of the world.
Rather than hit the clubs, the 22-year-old spent the night eating vanilla ice cream in a hotel room with three superstars of the civil rights movement. When he emerged the next morning, he announced his conversion to Islam and his new name, Muhammad Ali.
This new play at the Donmar makes the viewer a fly on the wall, partial to the conversation between Clay, “King of Soul” Sam Cooke, NFL star Jim Brown and black power activist Malcolm X.
It covers a lot of ground, much of it applicable to issues surrounding race and cultural acceptance today. Particularly affecting is a speech made by David Ajala, an imposing figure as Brown, in which he recounts the time the mayor of his town invited him to his house, told him how proud the town was of his success, but wouldn’t let him past the porch on account of his race.
The script doesn’t pander to these historical giants, either – in fact, Francois Battiste’s Malcolm X is painted here as aloof and humourless as he berates his friends for not taking a more active role in the struggle. There’s even some Trump-style “locker room talk” about “rounding up” some women for the evening’s entertainment.
For its relatively short (90 minute) running time, all four men feel incredibly well fleshed out; at times, the lesser known Brown and Cooke are more compelling than Clay and X. In Arinze Kene’s breakout musical number as Cooke, he unleashes an astounding voice that threatens to steal the show.
Although there are plenty of Clay’s trademark wisecracks, Sope Dirisu also manages to move his character beyond impersonation, lending him an air of almost child-like mischievousness.
Forget Miami, you want to spend a night in the Donmar watching a character study that’s as compelling as it is convincing.