How is change best achieved? In an unusual crossover, two Bristol organisations have come together to exchange their thoughts on the question.
On a recent morning, Empire Fighting Chance boxing club invited two actors currently performing at Bristol Old Vic for a sparring session ahead of their production’s opening night.
The play, One Night in Miami, follows the fabled, post-victory celebrations in 1964 of Cassius Clay, better known as Muhammad Ali.
After Clay’s blistering victory, he and three (rather famous) pals – Malcolm X, Sam Cooke and Jim Brown – celebrated in a downtown Miami motel room. One Night in Miami imagines what happened next.
Between tubs of vanilla ice cream, jibes and impassioned debates, the four men grapple with themes of racial injustice, expressive mediums and the commodification of music. But at its heart, the production explores change, and how best to achieve it.
“When I graduated, seeing black faces and black-led projects was a rarity,” reflects Miles Yekinni, who is playing Jim Brown.
“So, for me, this has always been a dream come true; to step into a room where I don’t necessarily feel like I have to explain myself in any shape or form.”
In preparation for the show’s opening night, the two actors took to the ring with the boxers of Empire Fighting Chance, a project forging change for Bristol’s youth, to learn more about their work.
The Easton-based charity, which works with those aged from eight to 25, aims to fight the impact of deprivation on the lives of young people through non-contact boxing, mentoring, therapy and educational support.
Evan Clayton-Richards, an 18-year old A-Level student from Staple Hill, was referred to Empire Fighting Chance by Bristol-based mental health charity Off The Record. He has been boxing with the organisation for a total of 20 weeks and plans to continue when his programme ends.
“Sometimes, when you come here, you’re too tired to be sad after. It’s a nice distraction. It’s definitely helped with my mental health,” Evan told Bristol24/7 after joining Miles and Conor in the ring.
Despite being a successful inner-city boxing club for more than 50 years, the venue’s work with young people experiencing issues such as unemployment, mental health and anti-social behaviour began just 12 years ago when the project’s founders, Jamie and Martin, spotted two men drug dealing in a nearby park.
To tackle their behaviour, they invited the pair in for a private lesson, discussing the issues they faced; and the project grew from there. In 2018, Empire Fighting Chance supported more than 3,000 young people like Evan; 81 per cent of who reported they felt more positive about their future.
Reflecting on their visit to Empire Fighting Chance, Miles and Conor applauded the work of the project: “Today, I’ve learned that so much is achievable when you put your mind to it – which sounds so cliché,” Conor explains.
“Whether they know it or not, they’ve made a huge impact on these people’s lives,” Miles adds.
“I know that in my life, I would not be where I am today if it wasn’t for certain people doing the small things. Everyone needs someone to give them a hand. No one makes it to the top by themselves.”
Later that day, staff and boxers from Empire Fighting Chance headed to the opening night of One Night in Miami at Bristol Old Vic. It was Evan’s first visit to the King Street theatre.
“It was quite funny, but as well as being funny, I learned quite a bit about history that I didn’t know before. I liked seeing Ali’s personality outside of the ring,” Evan said after the show.
At first glance, boxing and theatre appears to be an unlikely combination, but Miles and Conor explain what they take to be “fundamentals” linking the two; including discipline, holding one’s craft; and according to Miles, “staying alive in the space”.
“You can’t be on autopilot, especially in the ring,” Miles says. The same goes on the stage; you need to be alive in the space because something could go wrong, and you need to be able to fix it.”
One Night in Miami is at Bristol Old Vic until June 29. For tickets and more information, visit www.bristololdvic.org.uk/whats-on/one-night-in-miami