March 10 on the Oprah Winfrey Theater stage of the National Museum of African American History & Culture, Meshaun LaBrone took on the iconic role of Kwame Ture aka Stokely Carmichael. In the one man show, Power!: Stokely Carmichael LaBrone’s Stokely Carmichael took a scattered crowd of viewers on an hour-long journey through the mind of the former Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) national chairman.
In introducing the play, Deirdre Cook, director of public programs for the museum, noted that the play’s approach helped shape a better understanding of the civil rights icon as a man.
Writer and actor Meshaun LaBrone as Stokely Carmichael, in his March 10, performance of Power!: Stokely Carmichael, after he randomly selected AFRO reporter, Christina Sturdivant- Sani to join him on stage and participate in the production.
Using theatrical elements from the Theatre of the Absurd made famous by Parisian playwright Samuel Beckett, LaBrone presented a characterization seeking to break down the conventional walls of theatre to help us better understand the man that was Carmichael while wrestling with the current reality of movements like Black Lives Matter. The use of the absurdist style of story-telling allows for a portrayal of Ture that is divergent from the collective recollection of seriousness of the icon but is sincerely more intimate as we encounter the playfulness, the contemplative, and vulnerable elements of the man we aren’t privy to by simply digesting his public persona.
As both writer and actor of the play, LaBrone trains his lens on Ture during his organizing of the 1966 March Against Fear honoring the attempted March of James Meredith. This period is critical as it is when Ture publicly feuds with the concept of nonviolence utilized by Dr. King and the SCLC while warming up to the Black Nationalist sentiments of the recently slain el-Hajj Malik el-Shabazz formerly known as Malcolm X. Alluding to the tensions inherent in Ture as a major player in Civil Rights, LaBrone characterizes him as born of both “Martin and Malcolm.”
LaBrone’s Carmichael states, “Dr. King’s policy was that nonviolence would achieve the gains for Black people in the United States. His major assumption was that if you are nonviolent, if you suffer, your opponent will see your suffering and will be moved to change his heart. That’s very good. He only made one fallacious assumption: In order for nonviolence to work, your opponent must have a conscience. The United States has none.”
The play’s team – including Hope Villanueva (projection designer/PR), Elisheba Ittoop (sound designer), Marianne Meadows (stage manager/lighting designer) and Jennifer Knight (director) – create an engaging environment with spare use of the museum’s expansive stage and very little set design. Instead the Carmichael character is given great audio and visual aids to engage with. Use of well-crafted video montages set the scene of the brutality experienced by civil rights protestors of the past while a poignant ending montage speaks to parallels of the violence experienced by Black bodies throughout Black protest movements historically ending with a powerful photograph of what looks to be Sojourner Truth. Not to be outdone the audial elements of the play are so strong that they serve as a secondary character for the solo actor to engage and expand ideas with.
After the hour-long show, commissioned by the museum as part of its Taking the Stage programming, the actor took questions from the audience about everything from their experience with the play to LaBrone’s stint as a Metropolitan Police Department officer and how that influenced his depiction.
Meshaun LaBrone can be seen again in May helming his play Spook for Capital Fringe Theatre on Florida Ave.
The National Museum of African American Heritage & Culture has several upcoming events for the month of March including a package for the Women’s History Month as part of the #HiddenHerstory campaign.