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Ain’t No Party Like the Black Panther Party at Berkeley Rep

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Jesse J. Perez in Party People.

When old revolutionary firebrands get together after a long time, you can expect some sparks to fly. That’s certainly the case in Party People, the play by New York theater trio UNIVERSES now playing at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre. Members of the Black Panther Party and their Puerto Rican counterpart from the 1960s, the Young Lords Party, are brought together decades later by members of the next generation — a couple of self-styled artists creating a happening that’s part photo exhibit, part video installation, part performance and part reunion party. But the radicals went their separate ways for a reason all those years ago, and seeing each other again brings up all kinds of unfinished business and battle scars. And the young political dilettantes’ cluelessness about what it’s like to put your life on the line to fight for your rights brings tensions even higher.

Though Party People was commissioned by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival as part of its American Revolutions: The United States History Cycle (the same series that gave us American Night at California Shakespeare Theater and Ghost Light at Berkeley Rep) and premiered in Ashland in 2012, its Berkeley run could be considered a homecoming. The play was developed in the Rep’s new works program, the Ground Floor, and it’s been directed all along by the theater’s new associate director, Liesl Tommy. But more to the point, the Black Panther Party started in Oakland, so it’s really about hometown history — at least in part.

Oddly enough, the local angle is hardly even mentioned in the play itself. I’m not sure it’s ever established where the story’s set, but it definitely has a New York downtown vibe, and not at all a Bay Area one.

Steven Sapp in <i>Party People</i>.
Steven Sapp in Party People.

Marcus Doshi’s two-story set features a striking upper level of brick walls painted with a Black Panther graffiti-style mural, while the ground floor is oddly backed by a chintzy tinsel curtain. A giant sign reading “Revolution!” hangs high above the stage in lighted cursive letters. Hanging all over are screens showing Alexander V. Nichols’ video of what’s going on onstage from various angles.

As played by Christopher Livingston, young filmmaker and “Panther cub” Malik comes off more like Mark from Rent than a young Spike Lee. But as risible as it is when he talks about practicing his defiant scowl in the mirror as a wannabe revolutionary, his account of trying to connect with and live up to his long-incarcerated Black Panther father is touching. “I’ve got a prison-industrial complex—I can’t shake it,” Malik says.


Fellow youngblood Jimmy’s family connection to the Young Lords (if any) is unclear, but his role in the event is to generally “bring the party” through his hip hop “persona non grata” as Primo, prancing around in a ludicrous jester’s outfit (costumed by Meg Neville) and jeering at his elders that their revolution failed. His clownish provocateur persona is deeply annoying, and it’s amazing that the old radicals actually put up with his self-indulgent antics. But when Jimmy is being himself, he spits out some powerful, propulsive and resonant raps.

Jimmy is played by William Ruiz, aka Ninja, one of the trio that wrote the piece. The others are his sister Mildred Ruiz-Sapp, who plays a well-grounded elder Young Lord still nursing resentments from schisms within the movement; and her husband Steven Sapp, portraying an ultraserious veteran Panther with post-traumatic stress disorder.

Christopher Livingston in Party People.
Christopher Livingston in Party People.

Generally speaking, the younger generation gets a bad rap in this piece. They’re either clueless poseurs like the event organizers or resentful of everything their elders sacrificed, including their kids’ happiness. Amy Lizardo embodies the latter perspective touchingly as an embittered orphan who feels that her parents chose revolution over her.

Robynn Rodriguez and J. Bernard Calloway share a powerful scene as the furious widow of a police officer and the Panther who spent 25 years in prison for killing him before his conviction was overturned. C. Kelly Wright is a fierce and uncompromising revolutionary, and Sophia Ramos is formidable as a Young Lords leader suspected of being a spy. Jesse J. Perez is an avuncular old activist understandably apprehensive about seeing his old comrades.

Michael Elich rattles on amusingly as Marcus, a Young Lord who gets paranoid about something as simple as someone he knows calling from an unexpected phone number, but he’s chilling in a separate role as a straitlaced FBI agent sending informers to infiltrate and sabotage the groups. Reggie D. White is downright heartbreaking as one of those moles, singing soulfully about his agonizing guilt.

Singing and dancing is pretty much a constant in the piece. The cast of a dozen actors, half of whom were in the original production, keep in near-constant motion in Millicent Johnnie’s intense choreography, to sound designers/composers Broken Chord’s powerful, propulsive mix of hip-hop, salsa, funk, R&B, gospel, folk, work songs, and pretty much everything else. Often a familiar chorus from the Temptations, Bob Dylan, Grandmaster Flash or the Steve Miller Band will be woven into a song.

There’s a lot of poetry being recited, rhyming dialogue, zooming through the history of the movement(s), and thematic riffs on the challenges they faced, whether from saboteurs sowing suspicion or from drugs and misogyny. In fact, it’s a good 20 minutes before the main story starts at all.

The play treats the Panthers and the Young Lords interchangeably, and the bits of actual history that we get are told in such a mad whirl that it’s only possible to glean bits and pieces and general impressions. There’s a sense of running around trying to cover all the bases, making the play feel disjointed and overlong at two hours and 40 minutes. But it’s also filled with poignant, inspiring, heartbreaking and rousing moments. Talking about how she felt forced into activism by the hypocrisy and injustice she saw in society, Ruiz-Sapp’s Helita says, “That does not make me exceptional. It just makes me a person of conscience. A revolutionary.”

Party People runs through November 16, 2014 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre in Berkeley. For tickets and information visit berkeleyrep.org.


All photos courtesy of kevinberne.com.

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