One can count it as a missed opportunity that a show with the title “Power! Stokely Carmichael” tells us so little about the life of Stokely Carmichael, who was the activist credited with popularizing the phrases “Black Power” and “institutional racism.”
It is an intriguing life. Carmichael immigrated from South America to New York at age 11, went from honor student to young civil rights leader associated with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to self-declared revolutionary, first as “prime minister” of the Black Panther Party then as founder of the All-African People’s Revolutionary Party. He (briefly) married the great African singer Miriam Makeba, changed his name to Kwame Ture, and emigrated to Africa, where he died from cancer at age 57.
Writer and performer Meshaune Labrone tells us virtually none of this in “Power! Stokely Carmichael.” Instead, Labrone — much praised for a previous solo show called “A Right to Remain,” about the life of Tupac Shakur — focuses in “Power! Stokely Carmichael’ on a speech Carmichael gives to demonstrators before the March on Fear in Mississippi in 1966. “If you are out here for an exciting time, you need to go to the movies…There will be blood.” The chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee has come to see King’s main strategy as ineffective, and a sizeable chunk of Labrone’s speechifying is Carmichael’s inveighing against non-violence: “In order for non-violence to work, your opponent has to have a conscience.” Labrone energetically captures Carmichael’s polemical flourishes – “Power is learning. Power is loving. Power is moving, which is why we start with the vote.” Some will find some of Carmichael’s 50-year-old remarks shockingly relevant to the era of Black Lives Matter.
Labrone intersperses Carmichael’s words with those of anonymous characters, presumably fellow marchers, including an old sharecropper who tells a gruesome tale of a long-ago lynching. He also dances like James Brown, mocks upper-class black people, and, in the most baffling moment, brings a member of the audience on stage with him to share an imaginary bottle of champagne.
That moment crystallizes what’s both most impressive and most exasperating about “Power!” Labrone is a technically adept performer: He doesn’t just open the invisible bottle and pour the wine with precision; he also makes the exact pop sound to accompany the bottle opening. But, in a 70-minute play about Stokely Carmichael, shouldn’t there be less bubbly (fewer anonymous characters and extraneous entertainment) and more …Stokely Carmichael – the breadth and evolution of his thought, the details of his life?
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