A lot can happen in one evening, as Kemp Powers' play suggests, drawing on real events that fictionalise conversations between a number of famous faces barred up in a hotel room on a winter's night in 1964. Cassius Clay has just won the world heavyweight title and is mid-celebration with four friends and only a tub of vanilla ice cream to toast with. The next day he will stand alongside Malcolm X to officially announce that he is changing his name to Muhammed Ali, converting to Islam at the pinnacle of his career.
Imagined or not, Powers explores his decision to convert through his relationship with singer Sam Cooke and American football player Jim Brown who offer equal measures of scepticism whilst raising important questions that are not always fully answered. At times the writing feels overly traditional in form and structure which sometimes runs the risk of feeling static and overly didactic. Excuses have to be made for characters to leave the room in order for fresh conversations to spark, but some breakout moments as Cooke bursts into song add a jolt of fresh energy into the room.
Kwame Kwei-Armah's production is superbly acted which lifts the text beyond a series of necessary conversations that often feel too deliberate and slightly self-conscious. I found myself too aware of the inner debates between the men which at times risked them becoming mouthpieces for discussion rather than believable and relatable characters, yet despite our familiarity and preconceptions the performances do enough to keep them human.
Sope Dirisu captures the charm and athleticism of Clay as he fights to retain his energy on a post-fight come down and his youthful glow and manipulated innocence ground the play and help keep the stakes at a necessary high.
Francois Battiste's Malcolm X is suitably charismatic, offering an aloof perspective on the group that probes and sparks debate. His own fate is hinted at during the production's climax which shifts the overall focus away from Clay. I found his relationship with Arinzé Kene's Sam Cooke the most interesting as he challenges the singer for not writing socially progressive songs like Bob Dylan, providing a thought provoking side note to the demands of the music industry as well as the pressure of succeeding in sport.
It's sensitively directed by Kwei-Armah who keeps the postulating to a minimum, allowing his actors to find the nuance within the text as well as the more overt issues that it aims to explore. With a strong naturalistic design by Robert Jones and effective lighting and sound design by Oliver Fenwick and John Leonard the physical production offers vital context to the evening which is particularly necessary for those who aren't as familiar with the series of events.
Despite the compelling performances I couldn't help but feel this was more history lesson than narrative drama, and whilst it offered an engaging character study it didn't progress its ideas forward enough with enough force to really land a knockout punch.
What the Press Said...
"Kwei-Armah’s production is outstandingly acted. Arinze Kene not only puts across Cooke’s belief in the empowering potential of popular music but, using a spoon as a microphone, sings one of his best-known numbers with real joy."
Michael Billington for The Guardian
"In the main, though, the play summons up what was pivotal about this moment with great power – an illuminating and enlightening experience."
Paul Taylor for The Independent
"Kemp Powers's soulful writing offers an engaging character study of Muhammad Ali and his friends."
Henry Hitchings for The Evening Standard