Review: ‘Stokely’ at Court Theatre is an unfinished story of a uncompromising radical

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The activist Stokely Carmichael played a major role in both the civil rights movement and the Black Power movement, something that could not said about either Martin Luther King Jr., or Malcolm X. Thus although less famous than those two men, Carmichael’s biography, involving as it does time spent with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the Black Panther Party, offers a unique linkage between those iconic pillars.

That, I think, is what is most interesting about Nambi E. Kelley’s “Stokely: The Unfinished Revolution” and also the most, dramaturgically unfinished.

Kelley’s admiring and promising new biographical play, which premiered Sunday night at Chicago’s Court Theatre, spends most of its 90 minutes looking at Carmichael’s childhood in Trinidad and Tobego, his youth in Harlem and his education at Howard University, extrapolating from the frequent bitterness of those formative years the potency of his later activism. His epic young life certainly offers Kelley a lot of material: Carmichael was imprisoned (and brutally so) in Mississippi following the 1961 Freedom Rides when he was only 19 years old and still a college freshman. By the time he was in his mid-20s, he was being demonized by the white power structure (and some establishment Blacks) with a force that arguably exceeded any other figure from that era. Few Black Americans in history have been used to terrify white people in the way that the likes of Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan used Carmichael.

As Kelley portrays him, Carmichael (later Kwame Ture) felt abandoned by his mother and determined to separate from a father with different ambitions for his son. She clearly sees her subject as a force of nature and, in the actor Anthony Irons, she has an ideal partner.

Irons has distinguished himself as a Chicago actor for years but this is perhaps the best work of his career here (and I’ve seen plenty of it). Building on the idea of a pressurized young activist, the actor’s body never is still for a second as the political energy galvanizing Carmichael’s brain extends out, it feels, to the tips of his fingers and edges of his toes. Irons always is a present-tense actor, a performer who lives in the moment and makes you feel like anything can happen, an ideal quality for a play about the past, especially one with only a small cast. Irons is very ably supported by an exceptionally experienced ensemble, including Kelvin Roston Jr., superb as King, Wandachristine as May Charles (Carmichael’s mother), Dee Dee Batteast and Melanie Brezill, an actress who invariably brings emotional resonance.

The show is superbly directed, too. Not only does Tasia A. Jones keep the short scenes moving on Yeaji Kim’s sculpted set, she fuses one to the other with palpable ease, rarely resorting to blackouts and never wasting a moment.

Carmichael moved to Guinea in 1969 and rejected the Panthers on the grounds that they formed alliances with white radicals. For the final decades of his relatively short life (he died from prostate cancer in 1998, claiming at the time that the FBI had given it to him), Kwame Ture devoted himself to the pan-African movement and the All-African People’s Revolutionary Party. Inevitably, perhaps, he became drawn into sectarian controversy, and he was widely criticized for staying silent as the president of Guinea, Ahmed Sékou Touré, militarized his socialist ideals and executed political rivals. Carmichael was uncompromising in his Marxism and was an ally of Fidel Castro. He was said to always answer the phone with “Ready for the Revolution!”

That’s a lot for a 90-minute play and you certainly can’t fault Kelley from mostly staying out of the tricky decades in Guinea. That said, the piece needs a sharper authorial point of view, given the reams of biographical information easily available about Carmichael. The most interesting question to my mind is whether Carmichael was ahead of his time; many of his ideas have moved now into the mainstream progressive movement, especially when it comes to big city mayors.

Most Americans understand the differences in the philosophies of King and Malcom X; Carmichael, arguably, started out like King, became more like Malcom X, and then became yet more internationalist and radical. Aside from “Hell no, we won’t go,” one of Carmichael’s more famous, and more reductive, remarks was “In order for nonviolence to work, your opponent must have a conscience. The United States has none.”

So what’s a fair assessment of Carmichael’s legacy now, especially given that Touré was also not known for his conscience? I think the key to Kelley’s piece as she moves forward is to show us more of the how and why he changed, and whether that really was for the good of the planet and its warring souls, not to mention for Carmichael himself.

Chris Jones is a Tribune critic.

Review: “Stokely: The Unfinished Revolution” (3 stars)

When: Through June 16

Where: Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis Ave.

Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes

Tickets: $56-$88 at 773-753-4472 or