by Carol Rocamora
“Hey hey LBJ
How many kids did you kill today?!”
We haven’t heard that ominous chant since the 60s, and yet here it is again, resounding loud and clear from the stage of the Public Theatre, rekindling an explosive chapter in American history.
Party People, a raw, raucous new musical, is protesting injustice and intolerance – both in the past and the present. It’s a bold, brave semi-documentary, commissioned by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival for its American Revolutions cycle. Developed by a creative consortium including director Liesl Tommy and Universes (a theatre artists collective), this provocative work looks back on two radical political groups from the 60s, The Black Panther Party and the Young Lords Party. The Panthers, a radical protest group dedicated to combat racism and injustice, marks its fiftieth anniversary this year. So do The Lords, an activist group advocating a free Puerto Rico.
Set in the present with flashbacks, the story is told through the lens (literally) of Malik and Jimmy, descendants of the two groups, who are videotaping interviews with the movements’ survivors, as well as taking footage of each other. Malik is a young African-American, whose father, a Panther, was sentenced to life imprisonment in the 70s; Jimmy is a young Latino whose family members fought fiercely for Puerto Rican independence. The interviews reveal the pain and trauma that the survivors experienced during the turbulent 60s and 70s. Some committed violent crimes, others were victims; some were tortured, others betrayed the movement to save their own lives.
The interviews and conversations are interspersed with a mélange of hip hop and Latino song-and-dance numbers performed by a vibrant company of multi-racial performers. As Malik, Christopher Livingston plays an earnest young man (a.k.a. a “Panther cub”) who is trying to find a way to bring the Panther’s mission into the twenty-first century. How can we fight against police brutality and inequality in the criminal justice system today without resorting to violence? he asks. Jimmy (played by William Ruiz a.k.a. ‘Ninja’, a terrific rapper) faces his Uncle’s past as an informer. (“How would you define an agent?” his aunt sings, bitterly). He’s joined by a young Latino girl named Clara (Gizel Jiménez) who lost both her parents in the “Revolution” and is also struggling to find a way forward in the new generation.
The tension builds to the emotional fiftieth anniversary gathering – where there is an explosive encounter between past party members, as they try to come to terms with the failures of the past and the tragedy of ruined and lost lives. “When are we going to admit all that we did to each other?!” they cry. Meanwhile, a parallel ideological crossfire escalates between the older and young generation of each movement.
“Revolution!” says the neon sign, blazing above the two-tiered stage designed by Marcus Doshi. Sven Ortel’s projection design features vivid images flashing on a dozen screens above the stage and throughout the theatre. At one point, a bullet-ridden door is placed center stage, through which actors pass reciting the names of those who did not survive: Huey Newton, Eldridge Cleaver, Fred Hampton, and Richie Perez, among others.
In the final passionate moments, the ensemble – representing Panthers and Lords, past and descendants, reflect on the question: “What did we learn? If we knew then what we know now, would we go back and do it over again?”
That question is already being addressed. Just two weeks ago, large crowds gathered on Washington Square, a few blocks from the Public Theatre, to protest the racist and ethnic slurs uttered during presidential election. “Are you involved? Are you working on the ground?” says one character, challenging the audience Brechtian style. “Move the #hashtag from the social media to the streets,” cries Malik. It’s already happening.
As the company chants: “Life, home, land, bread/Give me justice, give me peace!” the stage lights may fade, but – according to these passionate artistic collaborators – the struggle continues. Kudos to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival for keeping the historic home fires burning, and rekindling them in the heart of the American theatre.
Party People, by Universes: Steven Sapp, Mildred Ruiz-Sapp, William Ruiz aka Ninja, composed by Universes with Broken Chord, at the Public Theater until December 11
Photos: Joan Marcus