Party People: Revolution is More Than a #HashtagRevolution
There is definitely a strong and loud voice of activism over at the Public Theatre this election fall, and it’s thrilling to be a part of it. Even as just an audience member. Because playing right now, there are three influential pieces being produced: one is the last of the three part Gabriels Family plays, Women of a Certain Age which opened on election night (I’d love to have been a fly on that rehearsal room wall as the playwright was editing and rewriting as news came in). There is the relevant and electric Sweat (I’m told it is a ‘near perfect’ play and production – I’ll know first hand December 9th). Both deal with many of the more inflammatory themes of this grueling presidential election. And now, adding to the election year mix is the dynamic Party People, an exciting and provocative history lesson about the complicated legacies of the Black Panther Party and the Young Lords Organization/Party. This show, developed and directed by Liesl Tommy (Eclipsed) was created by Steven Sapp, Mildred Ruiz-Sapp and William Ruiz (aka Ninja) of the award winning ensemble, UNIVERSES best known for their mixture of theater, poetry, jazz, hip-hop, politics, blues and Spanish boleros. It is a much needed addition to our dialogue, although it is sometimes confusing and difficult to follow, the overall effect is intense.
When I first started writing this review, it was the day before the election in America, and I was filled with hope for the future. I was worn out by this election year, but looking forward to Hillary winning and the world progressing out of this nightmare called Trump. I am now finishing this review the day (and week) after, filled with despair and anger. Maybe it is fitting that I spend this afternoon fighting off the malaise from a sleepless night, fueled by frustration, anger, and agitation, to write about these two historically relevant parties that fought a racial revolution fifty years ago. One that still needs to be fought now. With a vengeance. And a new fight has begun.
Back in the late 1960’s, both organizations fought racial bias in the police force, urban poverty, inadequate social services, and the lack of economic opportunities and political representation. Inspired by dozens of interviews with members of the Black Panthers and the Young Lords, UNIVERSES gives us the story of two young artists attempting to explore these two movements for radical change through performance art, video, and instillation. Using their personal connections to past members, these two modern day activists bring together a group of elders of the movement to create a modern look-back at the histories of these influential people and the times they lived in. It’s a formidable task UNIVERSES has undertaken, but it is a piece of history that needs to be told, especially in our new world order.
The older guard is a diverse group of damaged warriors, fighting the system then and now, and arguing and holding grudges against each other. The personal conflicts from the past are as present as ever, clashing with each other, and overflowing into their relationships with their younger relations. All the while, doing battle with their own internalized demons: Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is rampant in these survivors. We see and feel the damage of what it means to have been a part of this revolution. It’s a powerful history lesson in what they were up against; their bravery and passion. How it all burned so bright and hot, but eventually ended in a wave of self-destruction and bitterness. A lesson we should take to heart as we move forward post election.
The Black Panthers and the Young Lords brought much needed change to their communities through service and sometimes violent protection, but that also sparked a government that felt threatened enough to focus their attention and resources on bringing them down. What followed was murder, grief, fear, paranoia, but also a smoldering sense of pride that remained in those who remember.
The main problem that arises while watching this provocative musical is that the young curators seem foolish in comparison with their elders. This may very well be the point, but it is also a structural problem. Christopher Livingston as the videographer and Black Panther Pup, Malik “Mk Ultra”, feels the most grounded and earnest of the two. He does a great job as a son of an imprisoned Black Panther, holding all the pride and discomfort out for us to examine. Unfortunately, as written, he becomes a stereotypical disenfranchised young man of the 21st century who cares more about visibility, his followers, and the number of ‘likes’ he gets on any of his social media sites, then on what it means to be part of a revolution. Revolution is more than a #hashtag (see below) or a logo on a tee shirt you wear to an art opening. He (and in turn, we) needs to be reminded that it is about participation and action. His co-conspirator, Jimmy “Primo” played with uneven earnestness by William Ruiz a.k.a. Ninja, feels even more narcissistic and removed as he puts on his clown outfit and raps for the camera about change. As written, this character starts to become the hardest one to take; bordering on annoying. He seems so ridiculous in comparison to the real story of these two groundbreaking groups and their members that one wonders why this creative choice was made. The elders carry all of the power and weight of radical change and revolution making these two youngsters appear light as a feather. The musical numbers representing the historic battle become the most powerful moments of this uneven musical. And the numbers by the young men, the most feather weight.
The grand point is finally made, quite brilliantly by Amira, a former Black Panther, played with passion and fire by Ramona Keller, at the 11 o’clock hour, when she chastises the two for their insensitivity and obliviousness quoting Che Guevara, “Words are beautiful, but actions are supreme”. She tears into them for their modern day idea of what it means to be part of a revolution, and that critique struck the deepest emotional chord of the evening.
Reading the bios of these two groups in the programs, we can feel their influence and their power. These people fought hard against insurmountable forces, helping many who were hungry and in need, but these members also paid a high price for their dangerous struggle. And for those following in the footsteps of these warriors of change, the price being paid is convoluted. These two young men, even after they get whipped by Amira, return to all that they know, rapping into the video camera to be posted on YouTube. It’s as if they think they are fighting the real fight, but in reality, it’s just a weightless exercise in self-promotion. The true power of the people can be found in the history of these two legendary movements and residing in the stories being told by the elders. It’s a warning to us all. Don’t hashtag the revolution, be in it. Participate. Be heard. Be seen. Join in. And stand up against oppression.
Cast: Oberon K.A. Adjepong, Michael Elich, Gizel Jiménez, Ramona Keller, Christopher Livingston, Jesse J. Perez, Sophia Ramos, Robynn Rodriguez, Horace V. Rogers, William Ruiz a.k.a. Ninja, Mildred Ruiz-Sapp, Steven Sapp