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Theatre in Review: Party People (The Public Theater/Anspacher Theater)

Photo: Joan Marcus

As the Trump Administration recruits staffers and Republican members of Congress salivate at the opportunity to undo any number of President Obama's achievements, the Public Theater is celebrating America's radical past. The title of Party People has a double meaning: It takes place at a party -- and what a fraught, fractious get-together it is -- whose attendees are former members of the Black Panthers and the Young Lords, parties (in the sense of political organizations) that rattled American society in the 1960s and '70s. At this distance, it's not clear what many Americans found most upsetting about these groups -- their skill at setting up social programs in poor neighborhoods or their assertive, gun-toting ways. Whatever the reason, J. Edgar Hoover called the Black Panthers "the greatest threat to the internal security of the country," and it's unlikely that he looked more fondly on the Young Lords.

As written by Steven Sapp, Mildred Ruiz-Sapp, and William Ruiz, aka Ninja, a trio collectively known as Universes,Party People begins with Malik and Jimmy, members of the parties' next generation and artists trying to make sense of the past. Jimmy's uncle, Tito, was a prominent Young Lord; Malik's father, a Black Panther, is in prison, serving out a life sentence. To be sure, both young men admire, yet feel burdened, by the activities of their ancestors. Malik describes showing up on visiting day, dressed to impress in an all-black ensemble, complete with beret, only to have his father scoff, "Boy, you ain't no Panther!" He and Jimmy are revolutionaries without a clear cause or a methodology with which to express themselves. As a dejected Malik says, "So, what happens to us? The ones who came after, the collateral damage, and those of us still looking for ourselves in the mirror."

Well, in the case of Malik and Jimmy, they create a video installation based on interviews with as many former Lords and Panthers as they can find. Then they invite them all to a gala that quickly breaks down as battle lines are drawn, accusations are hurled, and rivalries are rekindled. Bitterness, not nostalgia, reigns. As Tito says, "I miss what we were but I don't miss what we became. I love what we created, but I hate how they, we, destroyed it." With its cast of middle-aged characters still in thrall to their pasts (about which none of them can agree), lengthy musical sequences, fantasy elements, and time-hopping structure, Party People at times looks like Follies -- with the showgirls replaced by cells from the radical left.

This is rich, rich material and the biggest problem with Party People is that it tries to mine the entire lode, raising fascinating questions but never exploring them in enough detail. Blue, an ex-Panther, looks like a middle-class businessman, but he served a quarter-century in prison. He is confronted by the widow of the cop he was convicted of killing. (Robynn Rodriguez is the lady in question, seizing the stage with authority and refusing to back down, even when the room turns against her.) Her words are powerful, her indictment strong enough to make the others squirm. But Blue simply denies any involvement and the matter is allowed to drop. So what did happen? Omar, another ex-Panther, announces, "I want a public apology, to have been tied up, in a basement, at gunpoint with a .45 held to my head, by members of the party, two who are here with us today." In a flashback, we see what he suffered, in grisly detail. The response from the others is along the lines of "just following orders," and it's unclear if the authors understand how lame a justification this is. The indictment is softened by the suggestion that torture was introduced by Solias, an FBI informant who infiltrated the group, and the script argues vividly that the party imploded thanks to constant surveillance and betrayals from within --but the issue of moral choice is essentially left hanging. As the events of the last decade have made scaldingly clear, torture is not an issue that can be waved away without a full moral accounting.

Malik and Jimmy get into the act, insisting that neither party achieved anything lasting, but this charge is thrown back in their immature, unfocused, millennial faces. Jimmy, defending his love of video art, says, "This is a new time with new technology. The revolution can be televised, live-streamed, Facebooked, and tweeted. The Revolution can have its own website, have its own blog, have a YouTube clip with a million hits. Have its own brand." Whatever one thinks about the older characters, they have earned their fury, and they tend to blow Malik and Jimmy off the stage. Amira, of the Young Lords, isn't having it: "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, or I Can't Breathe, or even Black Lives Matter is enough?"

So many questions, so many things to think about, so little time: Party People runs about two and a half hours, but that isn't nearly enough time to deal with the teeming cast of characters or to consider the complex, troubling issues that it raises. Late in the play, I found myself still sorting out the characters and their relationships. This is because large chunks of the play are handed over to lengthy musical sequences, some of which are exciting and others of which are too long and given over to repetitive lyrics; on the plus side, the music, a kind of soul/salsa fusion co-composed by Universes and the collective known as Broken Chord, often has a strong allure. (Millicent Johnnie's nonstop movement sequences are taxing enough to make you think a physical therapist might be needed backstage.)

If Party People is something of a mess, it's a lively, provocative one -- riveting and irritating in equal measure -- and, at the performance I attended, the audience, still in shock from the election, responded to the show's message of political activism with something like near-ecstasy. Under the direction of Liesl Tommy, who is also credited with developing the piece, the cast is powerful enough to bring the audience to its feet. Christopher Livingston is a surprisingly appealing presence as Malik, seething in resentment at being born too late for the revolution. Steven Sapp's Omar is especially harrowing when recalling being tortured at the hands of his comrades. As Blue, Oberon K. A. Adjepong defends his actions in compelling fashion, even if the issue is left unresolved. Jesse J. Perez captures Tito's simmering rage, especially in a scene in which he physically lashes out at Jimmy. Sophia Ramos has tremendous stature as Maruca, who may or may not have betrayed her fellow Lords. Michael Elich has a nice double turn as the most paranoid of the radicals and as an oily, disingenuous FBI agent. Horace V. Rogers is a spectral, hollowed-out presence as Solias, still seeking absolution after all these years.

Tommy has gotten an elaborate, up-to-the-minute production design from her creative team. Marcus Doshi's multilevel set -- backed by an electric sign that says "Revolution!" -- is constantly reshaped by his lighting, which makes strong use of saturated colors. There are upwards of eight video screens in the house on which Sven Ortel runs interviews with the characters, news photos of the original Panthers and Lords, and various abstract graphics. Meg Neville's costumes straddle two eras fairly convincingly. The sound design, also provided by Broken Chord, is admirably clear throughout.

There is so much to say about the Black Panthers and the Young Lords, and Party People wants to say it all, while simultaneously juggling a dozen major characters and staging rousing power-to-the-people musical numbers. It's little wonder that the effect is scattered, often confusing. And so many ugly facts are brought to light that when it reaches for a broadly affirmative ending, it feels slightly false. Then again, there's a moment when the door through which Fred Hampton, a leading Panther, was assassinated in a hail of bullets is brought onstage. The image is specific, devastating; no words are needed to comment on the police-state tactics that ended this young life. In a single image Party People says far more than all its speeches put together. -- David Barbour


(17 November 2016)

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