Look: you shouldn’t need me to tell you to run, not walk, to see Meshaun Labrone’s phenomenal one-man show, “POWER!” Stokely Carmichael. It won the special director’s award and played to sold-out houses at last year’s Capital Fringe Festival, and I was thrilled to see it come back this year since I missed it before. But if you weren’t already planning to see “POWER!”, please change your plans immediately.
I’m not saying it will always be an easy or comfortable experience, but it is a necessary one. Not “eat your veggies” necessary, but “understand the human condition” necessary. It’s riveting, visceral, laugh-out-loud hilarious, mouth-agape devastating.
The show opens and closes with a series of haunting projected images that mix the past and the present and the past, collapsing the emotional distance of “that was then, this is now.” Slavery and Ferguson; Alabama firehoses and NYPD riot gear; grainy black and white images and living-color file photos from recent events; black faces from then and black faces from now.
Labrone pulls you into his world of 1966 with an easy, earnest charisma. He’s the boy next door who has seen too much, and who knows both the stakes and the risks. He makes you his co-conspirator as he organizes marches, and makes you his witness as he uses storytelling and vignettes to explore the depth and horror of white supremacy (which is the “devil of humanity,” as he puts it, because it turns the white man into God).
One moment he’s Carmichael, railing eloquently about how “nonviolence” is only effective when your opponent has a conscience (and the United States has none). The next moment he’s illustrating this idea with a dinner-party scene that you have to see to believe. The next, he’s a squinting, sprightly 70-year-old sharecropper, whose jovial arm-wrestling with an audience member gives way to a horrifying story that explains why “you’ve never seen white folks the way I’ve seen them.”
“POWER!” Stokely Carmichael
Written and performed by Meshaun Labrone
Details and tickets
Labrone is a tremendously gifted physical performer who embodies something like half a dozen different characters with energy and specificity, all helping to turn Carmichael’s philosophies into flesh. He wails out James Brown and shouts hallelujahs to Jesus, only to argue that a joyful noise is sometimes just a desperate plea to avoid more punishment.
Like Stokely Carmichael himself, a controversial Civil Rights figure in his own time and even today, “POWER!” pulls no punches. It refuses to let you forget that Carmichael’s battles against systemic racism are the same ones we are waging today — from voting rights, to violence against people of color, to the everyday spoken and unspoken prejudices that help turn black Americans into second-class citizens.
And “battle” is the operative word. Carmichael marched with Martin Luther King, Jr., but he didn’t always agree with him. “Freedom,” “morality,” “equality” — none of these ideas are really adequate in the face of white supremacy. Power is the only thing that counts.
“POWER!” Stokely Carmichael . Written by Meshaun Labrone . Directed by Jennifer Knight . Starring Meshaun Labrone . Sound design: Elisheba Ittoop . Lighting design: Marianne Meadows . Stage Manager: Momo Nakamura . Producer: Meshaun Labrone . Reviewed by Emily Crockett.