Against his mother’s wishes, Powers brought two friends home from school while she was at work. In his bedroom, he showed the boys — Powers calls them Chris and Henry — a .38-caliber revolver she kept in an armoire. As a joke, Powers mimed inserting a bullet and aimed at Henry, firing off an actual shot. Powers ran to a neighbor for help, but the man refused, and it was too late. Both Henry and Powers were just 14.
Henry’s grieving parents declined to press charges, and a judge sentenced Powers to a year of counseling. He became obsessed with honoring Henry’s memory by achieving enormous success. On his 16th birthday, his criminal record was erased.
Powers finished high school in Virginia, attended Howard University and worked jobs without mentioning Henry to his peers. During college, he helped create the short-lived publisher Flatline Comics. The first comic he wrote, “Flatbush Native,” starred a superhero who could activate his powers only by ending a life.
In 2000, a comment by the city’s mayor at the time, Rudolph W. Giuliani, motivated Powers to write about Henry. A police detective, Anthony Vasquez, had recently killed a 26-year-old father, Patrick M. Dorismond, outside a bar on the West Side. Dorismond’s arrest for robbery at age 13 prompted Giuliani to say the victim was “no altar boy,” even though Dorismond had been an altar boy.
He became another dead Black man with a record, Powers wrote in his 2004 book, “The Shooting: A Memoir.” “I could one day unwittingly find myself on the receiving end of some misunderstood person’s knife, bullet, or worse. If that happened, would the people having those post-mortem conversations describe me only as a juvenile felon?”
After publication of “The Shooting,” Powers began researching a second book based on a historical tidbit: Immediately after winning his first world heavyweight championship in 1964, Cassius Clay spent the evening secluded in a hotel room with Malcolm X, Sam Cooke and Jim Brown. Each titan found himself at a major crossroads: Malcolm X was preparing to leave the Nation of Islam, Brown was readying to depart the National Football League, while Cooke and Clay were primed to emerge as public activists. As Powers fantasized about eavesdropping on their conversation, he realized he could do just that with a play.