15 May 15 Anniversary Artist Interviews: Meshaun Labrone
Word of mouth fuels many a Capital Fringe success. In 2015, the year that the festival relocated to its new headquarters in Trinidad, everyone seemed to be talking about POWER! Stokely Carmichael.
In a moment when Black Lives Matter was sweeping into the public consciousness, Meshaun Labrone’s one-man show about a forceful personality at the center of the politics of racial equality in the United States, POWER! was timely.
But topicality only gets an audience in the door. And what audiences at the Eastman Studio Theatre at Gallaudet University saw that summer was a bravura performance by Labrone that sparked numerous discussions.
Labrone recalls that the audiences for POWER! were quite diverse – and that broad enthusiasm for the piece “changed my whole view. This thing we’re talking about is a human problem… white supremacy and racism is the enemy of both black and white people. You cannot be a racist and be at peace.”
That the title of POWER! specifically invokes the name under which Kwame Ture came to prominence in the 1960s speaks to the play’s desire to invoke a journey. As Stokely Carmichael, the founder of the Black Power movement traveled from a key role in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) to an honored role in the Black Panther Party, before becoming the head of the All-African People’s Revolutionary Party,
One spark for the play was a friend telling Labrone about a physical resemblance. “I was talking to a friend of mine,” he says, “and he told me: ‘Man, I never told you this, but you look like and sound like Stokely Carmichael).”
The connection led Labrone to investigate Ture’s life and political transformations before writing the play. The performer’s father had been involved in the Black Power movement as a student, and his collection of books also proved inspirational. “I just decided to go ahead and go to my father’s library,” Labrone recalls.
Among the books he found were works by Ture, and the fuse for a powerful theatrical work was lit when Labrone reflected on what he might have done if he had been a student in that moment. “I thought: Yeah. Let me go ahead and start putting this together,” he says,
Labrone had already performed at Capital Fringe in a 2012 one-man show, Right to Remain. . . The Life and Mind of Tupac Shakur. For POWER!, he teamed up with director Jennifer Knight. They had met during a reading at Spooky Action Theatre, he observes, and the experience left him feeling that he’d found a fellow traveler in the journey.
“I thought: ‘I definitely want her as a director,” Labrone recalls. “I love a very minimal set. I don’t really like a lot of things to do— as far as set pieces and all that. I like the character and the words and creating the world with that…she was really on board for all of that.”
The play that Labrone created and Knight helped shape was not only a hit at Capital Fringe. Labrone has gone on to perform POWER! twice at the National African American History and Culture Museum’s Oprah Winfrey Theater, as well as in New York and various locations in California.
Labrone gave a reprise of POWER! at the 2016 festival, and returned to Capital Fringe in 2017 with another new show, Spook. He says Fringe has been a place where he has been able to write and experiment with material that challenges himself and his audiences.
“Where else will people let you come on in and test drive this stuff?” he says. “I love it. Thank God for the Fringe. Seriously.”
– Richard Byrne