jakub | May 20, 2024

AMERICAN THEATRE | When Kwame Was Stokely


Stokely Carmichael, Black Power advocate, speaks to several thousand people in Will Rogers Park in the Watts section of Los Angeles, Calif., Nov. 26, 1966. County supervisors had declined to issue his a permit to speak at the park, but a Superior Court judge ruled he could speak there without it. (Photo by AP Photo/Ed Widdis)

We’re all slightly different people around family, or others who know us well. With Stokely: The Unfinished Revolution, at Chicago’s Court Theatre May 24-June 16, playwright Nambi E. Kelley hopes to examine that very human truth in telling the story of activist Kwame Ture, born Stokely Carmichael in Trinidad in 1941, who would go on to become a Civil Rights leader in the 1960s, lead student marches for desegregation and voting rights, and coin the term Black Power. Though Kelley and director Tasia A. Jones call Ture’s impact “planetary,” in this world premiere play they hope to bring this icon down to earth.

Nambi E. Kelley.

“Part of his journey is accepting that he’s just a man—that he’s just a human being,” said Kelley. “It’s the breaking down of the mythology of what it is to be a superhero.” Ture was fascinated with Superman as a child, Kelley said, but growing up was in part a process of “breaking that down and seeing he’s just a person.”

The idea for the show originated with outgoing Court artistic director Charles Newell, whose pastor father worked with Carmichael at New York Avenue Presbyterian Church, which offered hospitality to marchers around the 1963 March on Washington, and who has childhood memories of the activist visiting their home. He later saw Carmichael speak at his college and “was transfixed.” After working with Kelley on a Court adaptation of Richard Wright’s Native Son in 2014, he knew she was the right writer for the piece.

Though she initially set out to tell the story through the eyes of women close to Ture—musician Miriam Makeba, activist Gloria Richardson—she soon realized that this choice “kind of muted him, like he didn’t actually have agency over his own story.” She instead focused on his relationship with one woman: his mother, Mabel R. Carmichael.

Whether he got it from his mother or not, one thing that pleasantly surprised Kelley in her research about Ture was his sense of humor.

“I think it’s kind of wonderful that people who carry the weight of the world on their shoulders and in their hearts also have a sense of humor,” Kelley said, comparing Ture’s ability in that regard to that of Dr. King, usually seen as stoic and authoritative but with a “humanity of humor” about him.

The goal of humanizing Ture, of course, isn’t to diminish him but to remind us all that you don’t have to be superhuman to affect real change. As director Jones put it, “It’s a story about someone who wants to overcome—who is striving with everything in his being to make even the smallest change in the right direction for his people.”

Jerald Raymond Pierce (he/him) is the Chicago editor for American Theatrejpierce@tcg.org

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