I’m a freelance journalist and published poet, based in Manchester.
When they were Kings
Sam Cooke, Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali and Jim Brown (American football legend and actor) spend an evening in a Miami motel room. This is not the start of a joke or short story but the true friendships on which Kemp Powers' play is based.
A 22-year-old Muhammad Ali (then still using his 'slave name' Cassius Clay) - played by Conor Glean - dances like a butterfly into the Hampton House Motel room. He is intoxicated with the victory he's just won over Sonny Liston, to become heavyweight champion of the world.
Malcolm X (Christopher Colquhoun) wants Ali to fully enlist in the Nation of Islam movement and he wants Jim Brown (Miles Yekinn) and Sam Cooke (Matt Henry) in his corner too.
Miles Yekinni (Jim Brown), Matt Henry (Sam Cooke), Conor Glean (Cassius Clay), and Christopher Colquhoun (Malcolm X). Photo by Richard Hubert Smith
Although enraptured by Malcolm, Ali still ducks and weaves away from an unequivocal commitment to "the cause." and all the sacrifices it will entail.
The boxer is the youngest star in the room and doesn't have the confidence of Sam Cooke and Jim Brown to argue back at Malcolm.
Jim sites his love of "pork chops and white women" as his main reasons for resisting Malcolm's proselytising.
Muhammad Ali/Cassius Clay is the dominating stage-presence at first. But the crux of Kemp Powers' drama is the love/hate relationship between the minister/activist and the soul singer.
Malcolm argues that 'white devils' will never give black people equal status and allow integration to really happen.
For Sam Cooke, the reality is "not so black and white." He believes that a racist society can be subverted for the benefit of black people. He insists that the mood-setters in crowds - the white equivalents of 'Sister Flutes' - can be won over by the universal power of song.
Conor Glean (Cassius Clay), Matt Henry (Sam Cooke), and Miles Yekinni (Jim Brown. Photo by Richard Hubert Smith
A play including Sam Cooke in which there was no music would be as satisfying as a title fight which went one round. Director Matthew Xia and Kemp Powers give Matt Henry (a musical Olivier-award winner) full licence to strut his stuff as the legendary soul singer.
The actor doesn't let them, or us, down - he delivers knockout performances of You Send Me and Bring It On Home.
That said, dramatic complexity is not sacrificed for the sake of unashamed showstoppers. One of Sam Cooke's more overtly political classics draws the play towards its conclusion.
Christopher Colquhoun (Malcolm X), André Squire (Kareem), and Oseloka Obi (Jamaal). Photo by Richard Hubert Smith
And a complexity is revealed to Malcolm X's character and situation than at first seemed unlikely.
Matthew Xia is familiar to Manchester audiences from the Royal Exchange productions of Frankenstein, Into the Woods and Wish List by Katherine Soper.
He clearly wanted the actors to capture the spirit of the famous men they portrayed, rather than impersonating them. Having never met Sam Cooke, Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali or Jim Brown, I can't vouch for their accuracy. But their portrayals strongly resonated with TV footage I've seen.
Oseloka Obi (Jamaal), Matt Henry (Sam Cooke), Christopher Colquhoun (Malcolm X), Miles Yekinni (Jim Brown), Conor Glean (Cassius Clay), and André Squire (Kareem). Photo by Richard Hubert Smith
One Night in Miami… - first performed in 2013 - is about four legends who despite their fame were not ring fenced from the prejudice which pervaded their lives like a miasma.
The play honours its exceptional protagonists, whilst making us think about how we would have been entangled with the racism of 1964 and how we are still in its grip in the twenty-first century.
Malcolm X photographs Ali in February 1964, after Ali had defeated Sonny Liston to become world heavyweight champion. By EPHouston - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=47801943