Review by Donna Herman
16 November 2016
The Oregon Shakespeare Company has an exciting project they've been working on since 2008, a 32-play series they're commissioning in association with various theaters around the country: "American Revolutions: The United States History Cycle." UNIVERSES (Steven Sapp, Mildred Ruiz-Sapp, and William Ruiz aka Ninja), was commissioned by OSF to create "Party People" in collaboration with Director and Developer Liesl Tommy (Tony win for "Eclipsed"). It's opening on November 15th and has been extended one week through December 11th. Another offering from this OSF cycle, "Sweat" by Lynn Nottage is also currently playing at The Public Theater. After seeing them both, I'm tempted to book a ticket to Oregon and see the rest.
UNIVERSES is a National Ensemble Theater Company of multi-disciplined writers and performers who fuse theater, poetry, dance, jazz, hip hop, politics, blues and Spanish boleros to create moving and challenging works for the theater. Although they've been an Ensemble-In-Residence at OSF for the last four years, they were founded in the Bronx in the 1990's. They were clearly the right choice when they were commissioned in 2009 to explore the history of the Black Panther Party in time for the 50th anniversary of its formation in 2016.
Using live video, poetry, hip-hop, rock, gospel, Latin rhythms, and spoken word, "Party People" looks at the complicated history and legacy of the radical Black Panthers and Young Lords. Using hundreds of hours of interviews with dozens of original members of these groups, the piece recalls the circumstances in 1966. Omar (Steven Sapp), one of the original Panther characters, explains why they came together at that moment; "When someone who has nothing is promised everything and paradise, they will do anything, by any means to attain it. When America promises everything and gives nothing, it should surely expect a backlash. Necessary! Civil Rights Movement, Necessary! Black Panther Party, Necessary! Young Lords, Necessary! Necessary because what we received was contrary to what we were promised."
The original mission of the Black Panthers was to patrol the streets of Oakland California and protect its citizens against police brutality. I know there was no crystal ball involved, but it seems almost prescient that the anniversary happens to be in 2016 and "Party People" is opening the week after Donald Trump is elected President. I saw the play on Saturday, November 12th after 5,000 people marched from Union Square to Trump Tower in protest. I saw one young woman in the audience come in with a large sign that said "My Body, My Choice" that she put under her seat. I'm not sure if knowledge of history will save us from repeating it, but I know it can't hurt. For this reason alone, I would urge you to see "Party People."
Luckily, that isn't the only reason for you to see it. It's riveting, fast-paced, well-written and performed by a versatile and talented cast. The play opens with Malik (Christopher Livingston), a new media/visual/performance artist and Jimmy (William Ruiz a.k.a. "Ninja"), whose alter ego "Primo" is a rapper/comic/agitator, planning an art opening for the 50th anniversary. They've invited all the surviving members of both groups as a kind of reunion. Malik is a "Panther Cub", the child of Panther members. He has never seen his father anywhere but in jail, and his earliest memory is of visiting him there. Jimmy has an Uncle who was an original Young Lord whom he is always trying to live up to.
It quickly becomes clear that Malik and Jimmy are aware that the reunion they have planned could go very badly. Not everyone parted on friendly terms and wants to be reunited. It is also clear that the legacy Malik and Jimmy have been left comes with some heavy baggage. Are their intentions altruistically or artistically motivated? As the guests arrive, along with the memories of what they accomplished, old wounds get ripped open and old animosities and jealousies rise to the surface.
We learn that the FBI's notorious COINTELPRO (counter intelligence program), started by Herbert Hoover, was sadly successful in infiltrating and sowing false information and creating rifts in the leadership of the Party. The piece also addresses the issues of what happens to activists as the years go by and the issues don't go away. And what about the children of the people who dedicate their lives to the greater good? What is the fallout for them?
Hard questions, asked with sensitivity and unbearable timeliness, "Party People" will resonate with everyone who sees it whether you lived through the 60's or not. Kudos to everyone involved.
"'Party People,' written by the spouses Steven Sapp and Mildred Ruiz-Sapp and by Mr. Ruiz (Ms. Ruiz-Sapp's brother), derives its language, vibrant and volatile, from actual interviews. Yet the storytelling is less than cohesive. Like most parties — political or festive — this piece has a slow beginning, a terrific middle and an ambiguous ending. Conflicting impulses shift 'Party People' toward drama at some moments, toward history lesson at others, toward agitprop occasionally. It is too long, too unfocused and perhaps too democratic, with nearly every character receiving his or her spoken-word aria."
Alexis Soloski for New York Times
"The piece, directed by Liesl Tommy (Eclipsed), is a researched yet original blend of docu-musical, family comedy, live video and hip-hop, defiantly unstable and sprawling."
David Cote for Time Out New York
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