Arts & Events


Reviewed by J. Douglas Allen-Taylor
Thursday November 20, 2014 - 11:10:00 PM

When Abraham Lincoln finally succumbed to John Wilkes Booth’s bullet after an all-night struggle, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton is supposed to have intoned over the President’s body “now he belongs to the ages.” While Stanton probably did say—or wanted to say— something like that, the actual quote itself was most likely polished up and prettified sometime afterwards for posterity’s sake, either by Stanton himself or someone who was standing nearby. That is how reality so often morphs into myth. 

As it is with individuals, so it is with eras and Movements. 

Those who lived through a Movement either succumb to these myths and repeat them as remembered fact or fight regularly to remember the real and tell the stories as they actually happened. 

And for those who were born afterwards? We look at these past eras as if through a locked window into a room we can never enter and, therefore, can never truly experience, and struggle to make sense of what will always be incomplete and just out of our reach. 

Those who try to dramatize the revolutionary ten year period between the mid-1960’s and the mid-70’s—an era that saw the rise and then demise of both the Black Panther Party and its Puerto Rican counterpart, the Young Lords—too often fall short because they speak from either one side or the other in this generational divide—either those who lived through it or those who came later—and therefore fail to speak relevance across the gap. 

By contrast, the writers, producers, and actors of Berkeley Rep’s current musical play Party People make that generational contradiction the central theme of their work. That—along with the cleverness of the creation of this piece, the competence of the actors in capturing the contradictions of those times and these, and the brilliance of the Berkeley Rep staging—make Party People one of the freshest, most original, most insightful, and most honest looks at those organizations and that era that we may have yet seen. 

The setup for Party People is simple. Malik, the son of a long-term incarcerated Black Panther (Berkeley Rep veteran Christopher Livingston), and Jimmy, the nephew of a Young Lord (Party People co-creator William Ruiz) are putting on a multi-platform visual art show to both explain and honor the memory and legacy of the two organizations. They invite former members of the two parties to participate, and the decisions of those Movement veterans as to how—and even whether—to participate plays out around a reliving of the organizational and personal struggles that took place when the organizations and those individuals were young and challenging the powers of this nation. 

Malik has videotaped interviews with several of the Panther or Young Lord veterans, and he continues to do so during the course of the play. Those interviews are replicated on multiple flatscreen plasma screens set up at various points across the stage scenery, often simultaneously as they are being videotaped both by Malik’s hand-held camera and from cameras mounted in various sections of the auditorium. There is what seems, at first, to be a ragged pulling back of the performance when Malik stops the play to give directions to the camerapersons, but we soon learn that this is actually part of the performance itself, a play-within-a-performance. Meanwhile, audience members are told that if they have to leave their seats for some reason while the performance is going on, they can watch it broadcast in the Berkeley Rep bar nearby. By the time cast members go into the stands and begin interacting with audience members, one is tempted to pull out your smartphone to see if the Berkeley Rep performance itself is part of some show being sent out to a larger internet audience, with the audience as simply a larger part of the play. 

There are several memorable scenes and songs. But by far, the highlight of the production is the backstory moment in which a penitentiary prisoner Solias—played by Bay Area veteran actor Reggie D. White—is recruited by the FBI to infiltrate the Panther Party and disrupt its activities. Solias—the government-paid agent—convinces Party members that it is loyal Party member Omar—played by Party People co-creator Steven Sapp—a scenario played out many times over in Panther and Young Lord history. Jumping back to the present, Sapp’s volcanic anger at being reunited with people who first suspected and then tortured him—and the surviving Party members’ anguish at those actions their attempts to justify and blame it on “the times”—leads directly into the best of the musical’s many dance-and-song numbers, a driving, rhythmic, Afrocentric stomp-and-chant by the men alone. 

There are a few flaws, of course. Solias’ lament-song at seeing the results of his betrayal is a little too reminiscent of Judas’ death-scene in Jesus Christ, Superstar, and in the brief periods when the cast-members try to rattle off Panther or Young Lord history and ideology, its mechanical, mindless, rapid-fire rote sounds far too much like, well, the mechanical, mindless, rapid-fire rote that many Panther and Young Lord leaders and party members often used, back in the day. If that’s the point the playwrights and director were trying to make, it was lost on those who weren’t around in the days when Panthers made their money by selling Mao’s Little Red Books to UC Berkeley students at the foot of Sather Gate and Sproull Hall. Fortunately, those flaws are few and far between, as Party People stresses originality of vision and staging and allows us to live out the history of its protagonists rather than simply telling us about that history. 

Socially-conscious musicals such as Les Miserábles, Porgy And Bess, or West Side Story seek to create memorable moments from historical eras. The snapshots are memorable, true, but what we remember is actually only the depictions themselves, not the periods they purport to depict. Set in the front row of a Les Miz performance today, actual French revolutionists, instead of seeing the play as a tribute to their struggle, would probably open up with musket fire on the cast and line up for the guillotine those who managed to survive. 

Rather than attempting to capture the era of the Panthers and Young Lords, Party People begins and ends with the assumption that while such things are uncapturable, it is the struggle of trying to recreate them that is most important in understanding them and honoring their legacy. That process is never-ending, and in that lies the genius of the Party People experience. 

Party People has been held over through at least November 30th past its original end date of November 16th. One can easily understand why. This one is a keeper. 

Berkeley Rep Thrust Stage 

Through November 30, 2014