“Do the right thing, for the right reason regardless of the consequences,” is the message that I heard while watching “Party People” at the Public Theater.
I had to hold back tears but I did not withhold laughter. Many of those attending the Sunday matinee withheld nothing. They were brave and as the heavy weight of the gross Trump years begins to settle on us, like a radioactive substance just itching to get into your DNA, the ugly truths of our missteps played on.
Commissioned by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival for its “American Revolutions” cycle and developed with Tony-nominated director, Liesl Tommy, the play was written by the spoken-word collective Universes.
The semidocumentary work explores two 1960s radical groups, the Black Panther Party and the Young Lords Party, and in Universes’ hands, “Party People” doesn’t flinch when examining our current political climate. In that reflection is a terrifying look at what we’ve become, making this play an exciting piece of theater. There is no getting around the fact that “Party People” is vital.
And so it begins in earnest with a handsome, young African-American man sporting the iconic beret. His name is Malik (Christopher Livingston) but he is also known as, Mk Ultra, the name he uses when facing the camera. He’s a performance artist, lifting his manhood he examines it through the legacy of the Panthers, an organization to which his father, now serving a life sentence, once belonged.
His view of his fathers’ world is romanticized and is helped along by his colorful Latino friend Jimmy (William Ruiz, aka Ninja), whose crackling alter ego is a curios clown—provocateur—named Primo.
The duo has conducted numerous interviews with former party members and, with youthful zeal, edited the interviews into a video. Then they dared walk further into history and invited those members to an art gallery to watch it all.
Ahh youth. Once the former revolutionaries assemble, all with curiosity surging around their brains, the evening segues into reminiscences interspersed with musical numbers (jazz, Latin, soul and hip-hop) with the evening being pushed along by the “master of ceremony”—Primo— who is dressed in a vibrant court jester costume. Ahh youth.
What happens when the painful past is introduced to the agitated “now?” The tributes form into apologizes and spill into rants that gives life to more infighting and dare I share, deeper reflection, into the dirty mirror that is America, circa 2016.
Did we learn nothing? Apparently very little. “Party People,” written by Steven Sapp, Mildred Ruiz-Sapp and Ruiz (Ruiz-Sapp’s brother), has caught the ear of the street—any street—in the U.S. that has a population of those who bear the weight of injustice.
“Party People” may not be the perfect play by the standards that such a thing is measured. Because of the quirky imperfections it’s such a powerful piece of storytelling.
Here they actually allow each character to be heard. Right now most Americans are utterly enraged that their voice isn’t being registered on the issue of “that man,” Donald J. Trump, who is to become president of the United States of America.
Whose America? By the voice of the people who are rising up in protest, saying “not our America,” with signs stating, “not my President.”
“Party People” reaches in and taps on the heart. The play is beyond timely—it’s absolutely necessary.
This time isn’t a distant history any more. The “Boogie man” has an ally so it’s no wonder that an audience has a visceral response to the piece. They are human, after all.
What did the 20th century history of civil disobedience actually accomplish? Hard question.
What can we do now with “that man and his ugly agenda” threatening to divide our country? What type of resistance might shape the 21st century?
Did they fail? The hard work of the Panthers did not end police brutality. Did the efforts of the Young Lords unite Puerto Ricans?
That’s the dark view. Now walk with me toward the light. The movements demonstrated that determined small bands of citizens—using their brains—can have a striking impact on culture and policy.
More importantly, their struggle clearly showed us that our people never give up—I mean like never give up. Power to the people, for life!
For more information, visit www.publictheater.org.