The night he beat Sonny Liston in 1964 to become world heavyweight champion, Cassius Clay, soon to re-identify religiously and politically as Muhammad Ali, goes a few punchy rounds of debate in a Miami motel room with the Muslim preacher Malcolm X, the soul singer Sam Cooke and American football player Jim Brown.
In this 2013 play by Kemp Powers, enterprisingly revived in Nottingham three years after it had its UK premiere at London’s Donmar, the four African American leaders in their fields box ideologically about whether racism is best countered through cooperative assimilation or radical opposition.
The 95-minute multi-biographical anecdote is given extra heft by knowledge of what followed. The beautiful, amusing, vibrant fighter – tremendously embodied by Conor Glean – will become the increasingly angry and ailing Ali of later years. And, within 12 months of this meeting, both Malcolm X and Cooke had been murdered, the tensions of 60s America suggested by the activist checking the hotel suite for bugs. In a clever feint from the writer, the one punch thrown does not come from Ali.
Christopher Colquhoun’s Malcolm is a convincing mix of piety, menace and insecurity (including, in the boldest dramatic stroke, doubts regarding his skin colour). The play is hard to cast because it requires a lead who can do a pitch-perfect impersonation of Cooke’s singing, while holding his own in complex four-way dialogues, but Matt Henry, as he did in Kinky Boots, catches the eye and ear in every moment. As Brown, the least-famous and least-written of the main roles, Miles Yekinni is convincingly a black celebrity who has opted to pretend America is simpler and better than it is.
The text still seems as impressive as at the Donmar in 2016, though weakened by director Matthew Xia’s peculiar decision to stick in an interval after 58 pages of 75. This interruption leaves the dramatic climax as a skimpy PS. Five-star acting gets only three-star presentation.