Stokely: The Unfinished Revolution Tells the Story of Stokely Carmichael | Playbill

Chicago News Stokely: The Unfinished Revolution Tells the Story of Stokely Carmichael

The new play by Nambi E. Kelley is currently running at Chicago's Court Theatre.

Melanie Brezill, Kelvin Roston Jr, Anthony Irons, and Dee Dee Batteast in Stokely at the Court Theatre. Michael Brosilow

Most historically literate people know the name Stokely Carmichael. They know that he was a civil rights leader. But that may be all they know. He’s not as familiar a figure as Martin Luther King, Jr. or Malcolm X. Tasia A. Jones, the director of the new play

Stokely: The Unfinished Revolution, running at Chicago’s Court Theatre until June 16, said that was true in her own case. “I knew very little about him, he wasn’t someone I’d learned about in school,” says Jones, who, with Gabrielle Randle-Bent, directed 1919 at Steppenwolf Theatre, about a deadly Chicago race riot that resulted after a black teen was killed on a Chicago beach. 

But after reading both the play by Chicago playwright Nambi E. Kelley and Carmichael’s autobiography—Ready for Revolution: The Life and Struggles of Stokely Carmichael—Jones realized his unique and prominent role in the fight for equal rights. “Even after the civil rights movement, he was still an activist,” she notes, “he was still fighting for social justice and fighting against injustices everywhere, even after he left the U.S.” 

“What makes him unique is that he straddles a whole bunch of worlds,” observes Kelley, who adapted Richard Wright’s novel, Native Son, for Court Theatre in a critically acclaimed co-production with American Blues Theatre in 2014. “He started as a freedom fighter, then he becomes the head of SNCC [the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee], then he was, like, ‘I’m going to be a Black Panther, and now I’m going into Pan-Africanism.’ He was constantly in search of ‘What’s going to get us liberated?’” 

Court Theatre has a Carmichael connection. Outgoing artistic director Charles Newell’s minister father worked with him in Washington, D.C., and Carmichael would visit the house when Newell was a kid. “Later, at college, I attended a talk of his and I was transfixed,” shares Newell. “Here was this man from my youth, but in a whole new light,” Newell said. So Court approached Kelley with the idea for the play. 

Kelley wrote Stokely as a memory play. Set in 1998, when Carmichael—who changed his name to Kwame Ture—is 57 and dying of prostate cancer in Guinea, reflecting on his life, starting with his childhood in the West Indies, before moving to Harlem at age 11. Carmichael—played onstage by Lookingglass Theatre and Congo Square Theatre ensemble member, Anthony Irons—joined the Freedom Riders, civil right activists who challenged segregation on interstate buses in the South and was frequently arrested. He later became a key leader in the development of the Black Power movement. He moved to Africa in 1968, becoming active in the All-African People’s Revolutionary Party. 

Ture started his autobiography, but was unable to finish editing it before his death, relates Kelley. “That’s the set-up for the play. He’s recording these stories for the book. He wants to leave a manual for liberation for those coming behind him.”

Carmichael was known for being both creative and humorous—though one joke badly misfired. In a comic monologue, he was quoted as saying that “the position of women in the movement is prone.” Many women were offended. On the other hand, he was also known for appointing women as project directors during his tenure at SNCC. The joke controversy is included in the play. “Like any other human being he was a complex person,” says Jones. “I think this is what Nambi Kelley has done so well in the script, to show him in all his facets.”

In getting to understand the man better, Jones says she particularly related to one aspect of his life: his Caribbean origins. Jones’ mother was born in Jamaica and her father was raised in St. Thomas. “Carmichael came here as a child, from a place where he was not a minority, to a majority white environment,” notes Jones. It was the same for her parents. “They all knew what it was like to feel suddenly ‘othered.’”

Carmichael, relates Kelley, was an individual who refused to be pigeonholed, who was never afraid to be himself. “He was like, ‘I’m just going to explore everything there is to explore and figure out what’s the best way to liberate my people. In that respect, he’s publicly ahead of his time.” If he were alive today, Jones thinks he would encourage people to have a global perspective, and to remember, she says, that “injustice anywhere is injustice for all of us.” She hopes the play will inspire people to take on the charge Carmichael left, “and find their version of what it is to be a revolutionary.”

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