“Party People,” a look at the Black Panther Party and the Young Lords, is powerful and intelligent documentary theater — although the documentary theater part struggles for attention amidst all the other elements of this lively, sprawling, overlong play/musical/multi-media hip-hop performance art piece.
Although we’re told in the program that “Party People” is based on dozens of interviews with former members of the two activist organizations from the 1960s, the characters we meet are fictional, and the play is framed as an imagined 50th year reunion of the activists at the opening of an art show – called Party People – put together by two young hip-hop artists who grew up long after the organizations’ demise.
Malik (Christopher Livingston) a videographer who goes by MK Ultra, is the son of a member of the Panthers who is in prison for life. Jimmy (William Ruiz) is a rapper known as Primo the Clown, whose uncle Tito (Jesse J. Perez) was a member of the Young Lords. But, despite their familial ties and their interest in the movement, it soon becomes clear that they are skeptical of the older generation.
As Malik puts it, their aim vis a vis the movement and its legacy is to be unafraid “to look deep in its eyes, deconstruct it, analyze, optimize, finalize, cut and paste it, Photoshop it back together again and then click share.”
Clara (Gizel Jiménez), the daughter of two Young Lords, who was raised by an aunt, puts her skepticism more simply and more personally: “You sacrificed everything, even us, and still you failed,” she tells her elders.
Indeed, a major theme running through the show is the conflict between the 60’s generation and today’s. The criticism doesn’t all flow in one direction.
“You think wearing a hoodie and calling yourself Trayvon means something? Or throwing on a t-shirt that has a great tag line, like Hands Up,” Amira (Ramona Keller) tells them. “There were no ‘hashtags’ then.When there were issues of people being hungry, we fed the people. When we saw people needed health care we started our own free clinics. So action is the real thing.”
But pride is not the only emotion the characters feel. When we meet them one by one as they prepare to attend the reunion, we learn that they all joined as teenagers, inspired by Malcolm X and Puerto Rican independence fighter Don Pedro Albizu Campos, but that they now distrust and resent one another, blaming each other as much as the F.B.I’s infiltration, dirty tricks and outright killing for the organizations’ destruction, and for so many of its members winding up in prison, in exile, in drug dens, in the cemetery.
Nevertheless, few of the survivors we meet regret having been involved. “Here’s something I do know,” Tito says at one point. “The Party may have failed, but the struggle for justice is always worth it.”
It is to the credit of the show’s creative team – the theater collective Universes, and director Liesl Tommy (Eclipsed) – that, like Malik and Jimmy, “Party People” itself doesn’t shy away from the mixed legacy of the parties and their members. One of the most compelling scenes in the play is the confrontation between Donna (Robynn Rodriguez), the widow of a murdered police officer, and Blue (Oberon K.A. Adjepong ), one of the Panthers imprisoned for his death
“My conviction was overturned because of evidence that was withheld by the prosecution,” Blue says.
“You may have fooled some people, maybe even convinced yourself, but you will not fool or convince me,” Donna replies.
“Party People” is full of intriguing historical tidbits, exciting choreography, rhythmic singing and chanting, clever spoken word poetry, stirring speeches, galvanizing fist-pumping, suspenseful encounters and poignant moments – too full, actually. It’s overstuffed and unfocused. One can sympathize with the creative team’s resistance to trimming such rich material, but still wish they had done so.
“Party People,” which the Oregon Shakespeare Festival commissioned for its U.S. History cycle and was first produced there four years ago, has abruptly gained new relevance in the past week, acknowledged by an obvious update in Amira’s last speech in the play:
“The Party was a continuation of the first slave uprising, and we are still fighting that fight! It’s my only fight. Why do you think that the FBI and the CIA unleashed their dogs of war on us. Why do you think Donald Trump is the president? This country has never wanted us to be free.”
By UNIVERSES: Steven Sapp, Mildred Ruiz-Sapp, William Ruiz aka Ninja
Composed by UNIVERSES with Broken Chord
Choreography by Millicent Johnnie
Developed and Directed by Liesl Tommy
Featuring Oberon K.A. Adjepong (Blue); Michael Elich (Marcus, FBI Agent); Gizel Jiménez(Clara); Ramona Keller (Amira); Christopher Livingston (Malik); Jesse J. Perez (Tito); Sophia Ramos (Maruca); Robynn Rodriguez (Donna, Fina); Horace V. Rogers (Solias); William Ruiz a.k.a. Ninja (Jimmy “Primo”); Mildred Ruiz-Sapp(Helita); and Steven Sapp (Omar).
Scenic and Lighting Design Marcus Doshi
Costume Design Meg Neville
Sound Design and Vocal Direction Broken Chord
Projection Design Sven Ortel
Wig Design Cookie Jordan
Running time: two and a half hours, including an intermission.
Tickets: $30 to $100
Party People is scheduled to run through December 11.