If you don’t know your American Civil Rights history, the idea that Cassius Clay, Sam Cooke, Jim Brown and Malcolm X were friends might seem improbable. But they were. Actually, they were more than that, they were a power crew of their time and on 25th February 1964 – the night Cassius Clay won the Heavyweight Champion title over Sonny Liston – the four of them went back to Malcolm X’s room at the Hampton House motel to celebrate the young boxer’s achievement.
Kemp Powers’ 2013 debut play imagines what might have happened on that night between these four exceptional black men, each on the precipice of cementing their place in the history books.
The newly crowned world boxing champion, influential singer-songwriter and record producer, star NFL player turned actor and controversial Nation of Islam leader shoot the breeze while eating vanilla ice cream.
As Clay (Conor Glean) grapples with the reality of the sacrifice he has to make to become Muhammad Ali, Malcolm X (Christopher Colquhoun) berates Cooke (Matt Henry) for what he sees as his unrelenting dedication to appeasing the white man, at the expense of the civil rights movement. Meanwhile Miles Yekinni’s Jim Brown has just discovered that success does not inoculate against racism as he thought it would.
Matthew Xia’s production of the play brings forth the multidimensional experiences of blackness – these men are united in their race and gender but so different in many other ways. It’s refreshing to see four black men take centre stage, with a nuanced portrayal of their differences, as well as their similarities.
The ensemble cast is superb, with real chemistry and an excellent sense of balance. Glean’s Clay is curious and excitable, qualities offset by Colquhoun’s cooly controversial Malcolm X. Yekinni brings a wise energy to his Jim Brown; he binds the group together. There’s a standout performance from Kinky Boots star Matt Henry, whose pitch perfect vocals are a supreme match for Sam Cooke’s classics.
Lighting designer Ciarán Cunningham’s sunset backdrop fades upwards from rich fuchsia to deep violet to warm azure, and then eventually to black as dusk turns to night. Grace Smart’s set – a cosy, retro-modern hotel room in an open-faced box in the middle of the vast Nottingham Playhouse stage – honours the intimacy of the piece and draws the audience in.
Powers’ play is set in the 1960s but has many parallels with 21st-century society. This timely revival raises many questions for which black people are still searching for the answers more than half a century later. It makes you wonder when, exactly, a change is gonna come.