Don’t come expecting a history lesson. I know no more about the biographical details of Stokely Carmichael’s life than I did when I entered the theatre. Instead, what I got was a lesson in the message behind the man.
Writer/ Performer Meshaun Labrone brings the powerful voice of late Civil Rights leader and Black Power activist Stokely Carmichael to life. At times, Labrone as Carmichael transforms into characters, real and imagined, that he uses to convey his point; that racial inequality was created by white oppressors, that non-violence is ineffective if your opponent has no conscience, and that black is not only beautiful, but powerful and empowered.
Labrone’s adept physicality allows him to seamlessly shift from the young, confident Carmichael, to a beaten down elderly Mississippi man, to the judgmental ‘dorm mothers’ of Howard University in the 1960s. Labrone’s use of the audience as a stand-in for a group of protester on the 1966 “March Against Fear,” along with masterful uses of voiceover and projection, fills the near empty stage with more characters, scenes, and events than the typical one man show. Particularly powerful are the moments when the white bosses, masters, and aggressors appear in looming, semi-omnipotent voice-over to harass Labrone’s various characters and constructions.
Power makes very clear how dangerous the Civil Rights Movement was for those who went on marches, registered voters, and committed the ultimate crime of being black in the south. Labrone, as Carmichael, tells the audience that if they are there looking for something exciting, go see a movie- because there are cops and racists who would like nothing more than to shoot them dead, and brag about it later. Graphic stories of lynchings, beatings, and worse are accompanied by flashes of projected images – 14 year old Emmett Till, beaten beyond recognition in his open casket, a mutilated and burned Sam Hose, still tied to the tree.
Written and performed by Meshaun Labrone
Directed by Jennifer Knight
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Although the subject matter is serious, Labrone makes the experience bearable with an occasional shot of humor, and a wry, truth-telling attitude that elicited laughs and applause from the audience. It is in this way that Carmichael introduces his audience to the other enemies of his movement; it is not just the white racists that are the problem, but those that preach non-violence and prayer above all else, those that mistake money and material goods for freedom, and black people who make blackness pejorative that do the most damage.
Power! Stokely Carmichael is not a history lesson and that is its great tragedy; it is relevant, resonant, and deeply moving, and makes clear that the world in which we live is not so much different, so much better, than the world Stokely Carmichael worked to change.
At the conclusion of the piece, Carmichael passionately reads from the Bible while another slide show begins. At first it depicts oft-seen pictures of the Civil Rights era – policemen with firehoses, Rosa Parks being arrested, but soon, more graphic images appear – mutilated slave bodies, photos of lynchings, and beatings, and then, the smiling face of 12-year-old Tamir Rice. Intermingled with the photos of the “bygone” era of lynchings and police brutality, is a photo of a white police officer with his knee in the back of a 14-year-old, bikini-clad black girl in Mckinney, Texas, as well as photos of black women recently killed by police: Rekia Boyd? Tyshia Miller? Miriam Carey? What does it say that there are so many that a Google search won’t help me match names with faces?
Meshaun Labrone, under the direction of Jennifer Knight, creates an evening of theatre that lives up to its title. Power is, in fact, powerful.