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  • Stephanie Kulke

Black Power: Nambi E. Kelley illuminates the life of the revolutionary Stokely Carmichael

What gives activists their courage to resist violent oppression? In Court Theatre’s world

premiere of Nambi E. Kelley’s biographical drama “Stokely: The Unfinished Revolution” a key

ingredient is bitter experience.

“The bitter makes you stronger” was an expression of Stokely Carmichael’s Trinidadian

grandmother, prior to mixing a medicine to soothe his asthma attacks. Her words returned to

him often during moments of bitter strife and sadness.

It was bitterness that sickened him at age 14 when he saw a photo of the murdered Emmitt Till,

a boy his same age.

It was bitterness that clarified his purpose when his friend Sammy Young Jr., a fellow SNCC

volunteer was shot to death in Alabama.

At the root of these bitter experiences was an abandonment by his mother, who left her children

in Trinidad for several years when she emigrated to the U.S., a wound that persisted to the end

of Stokely’s life at age 57.

But bitter experiences did not make Stokely a bitter man. From an early age he sought out

heroic figures to model his life starting with Superman.

Kelley’s play introduces us to those that shaped his life – from a Bronx schoolmate who taught

him about communism, to James Baldwin’s impactful visit at Howard University, to the civil

rights activists he worked alongside including Fanny Lou Hamer, Ella Baker, Diane Nash, John

Lewis, and Martin Luther King Jr. Under the direction of Tasia A. Jones, each figure leaves a

physical trace in Stokely’s memory.

The small but mighty ensemble of five seems much larger as the action unspools. The actors

switch characters with subtle shifts in speech, mannerism, or costume. Jones injects the

production with movement and song to capture the energy of the protests, teach-ins and rallies

that punctuated Stokely’s life.

Melanie Brezill is a standout in the roles of Fanny Lou Hamer, Miriam Makeba, Diane Nash, and

others as is Kelvin Roston Jr. in the roles of Stokely’s father Adolphus, James Baldwin, and Rev.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

How is it possible to dramatize the epic life of a figure who countenanced both Dr. King’s tactics

of nonviolent protest and Malcolm X’s motto “Freedom by any means necessary” into an

evening length play?

Like a prism, which takes in the sun’s full light, and refracts it into a focused rainbow, Kelley

tasks Stokely Carmichael with the job of interrogating himself about the most germane moments

in a life dedicated to Black liberation.

Yeaji Kim’s set design evokes the expansive archives of Stokely’s memory: shelves laden with

photographs, partially opened drawers, newspapers stacked on boxes. The terminally ill

Stokely, tape recorder in hand, struggles to organize his thoughts while enduring the agony of

the cancer that will soon kill him.

Anthony Irons gives an urgent and commanding performance as Stokely Carmichael. We

witness him traveling back and forth in time, enacting key moments from his life for the benefit

of the next generation.

Playwright Kelley reveals the hot and cold natures of the maternal figures in Stokely’s life: his

doting and formidable grandmother Cecelia (played by Dee Dee Batteast) and his proud and

imperfect mother May (played by Wandachristine). Both are flawed women yet essential to the

development of Stokely’s self-worth and love for justice.

There is more to learn about Stokely Carmichael than one play can hold (especially when it

comes to following his transitions from the SNCC to the Black Panther Party to the global

concerns of Pan African liberation), but “The Unfinished Revolution” serves as a timely and

exciting introduction this civil rights activist.

Kelley’s play concludes with a Black Panther rally, where Stokely delivers a speech of defiance,

poetry, and Black Power. The scene resonates during the current moment of protests

denouncing war atrocities and infringements on civil liberties.

Stokely’s ability to find strength amidst the bitter struggle for liberation may offer courage to

those who follow him.

 “Stokely: The Unfinished Revolution”is playing Tuesdays through Sundays at the Court Theatre, 5535 South Ellis Avenue in Chicago's Hyde Park neighborhood until June 16, 2024. For tickets and information go to

Photo by Michael Brosilow

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