Category Archive for: ‘Woody Weingarten’

Musical traces pluses, minuses of Black Panther history

[Woody’s Rating: ★★★☆☆

Steven Sapp (right) leads 12-member ensemble cast in “Party People,” a new musical about the Black Panthers and Young Lords. Photo courtesy of kevinberne.com.

Kelly C. Wright (right), Bernard Calloway (left) and Mildred Ruiz-Sapp (rear) brandish guns in “Party People.” Photo courtesy of kevinberne.com.

Steven Sapp (foreground), Christopher Livingston (left) and Reggie D. White parade black power symbol in “Party People.” Photo courtesy of kevinberne.com.

“Party People” is a provocative, adrenaline-charged, flashy ride into history.

But it’s depressing.

The new Berkeley Rep musical, with a fictitious veneer glued atop historical events, is a double-edged examination of good and bad aspects of the Black Panther Party and the Young Lords.

It’s embedded in the ‘60s and ‘70s.

Yet it displays a legacy that bumps against 21st century incidents like the Florida killing of unarmed African-American teenager Trayvon Martin by a neighborhood watch captain, and this year’s police slaying of a black teen in Ferguson, Missouri, which sparked rioting.

Or the fatal shooting of Oscar Grant in Oakland that led to a compassionate film reconstruction, “Fruitvale Station.”

The fact that discrimination against people of color and second-class citizenry haven’t disappeared is precisely what makes the play depressing.

Also, as a middle-class, suburban white man, I found the show guilt-inducing, discomforting and a little frightening.

Why?

Possibly because “Party People” — after examining compound facets of racial relations — ends up pushing for new revolution.

The disturbing play, replete with thunderous cries of “power to the people,” clocks back to a time when rank-and-file revolutionaries picked up garbage and provided free food and medical care in black and brown communities — at the same time fighting what they perceived as an oppressive federal government.

But it also shows betrayal, bewilderment and party in-fighting triggered by J. Edgar Hoover, the FBI’s director who’d created Cointelpro, a counter-intelligence program that used tactics of infiltration, surveillance, harassment and assassination.

Hoover had labeled the Panthers, founded in Oakland in 1966 by Huey Newton and Bobby Seale, “the greatest threat to the internal security of the country.”

“Party People” suggests the radicals were hardly that.

Rather, a group of complicated human beings with conventional flaws.

The chaotic times clang in my memory.

I recall having major difficulty accepting the assassination of Malcolm X. And, of course, those of the Kennedy brothers and Martin Luther King.

I remember having difficulty, too, sorting through stacks of news reports in an attempt to excavate a capital “T” truth.

Unfortunately, my vision wasn’t cleared by watching “Party People,” which lamentably degenerates into a polemic despite showcasing brilliant acting-dancing-singing performances by an ensemble cast of 12, exciting live video projections that persistently flicker on 17 screens, and loud, heart-pulsing music that rebounds from hip-hop/rap to blues, from gospel to rock.

The exceedingly intense show, based on dozens of interviews, imagines members of the two groups at a modern-day performance-art opening ripe for generational and cultural gaps.

The fantasy was collectively penned by writer-performers William Ruiz (aka Ninja), who runs a gamut of emotions onstage as Jimmy, one of the two artists who shaped the reunion; Steven Sapp (formidable as Omar, a Panther suspected of being a traitor and forced to confess to things he hadn’t done); and Mildred Ruiz-Sapp, who portrays Helita and whose powerful singing voice is mesmerizing.

Liesl Tommy, associate director at Berkeley Rep, revamped the piece after she directed its world premiere in 2012 for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland.

She obviously can relate to what she’s spotlighting because she grew up in South Africa, where her parents were anti-apartheid activists.

Practically everyone, of course, is familiar with the Panthers, who were conceived as the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, aimed originally at monitoring police behavior and challenging police brutality.

A lot fewer West Coast folks will recollect the Chicago-based Young Lords, a Puerto Rican independence-promoting group inspired by the Panthers.

(“We were a social club but the police called us a street gang,” intones one character.)

No one, however, is likely to forget the clenched-fist symbols of “black power,” which are magnificently addressed — along with staccato militaristic and drug-generated shakes  — by choreographer Millicent Johnnie.

The vigorousness of what she’s invented is reflected, figuratively and literally, by the dancers’ sweat.

Humor is not absent.

Sometimes it stems from lighthearted wishful thinking (“The revolution can have its own website), sometimes with a modicum of irony (“This is America — learn to speak Spanish.”)

“Party People” takes pains to pay homage to dead and imprisoned social warriors.

It also tries unsuccessfully to sum up a narrative, in my judgment, can’t be condensed to bumper sticker size.

“The struggle for justice is always worth it.”

“There have to be consequences.”

“You have to ask yourself, ‘What are you willing to sacrifice?’”

“Party People” plays at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre‘s Thrust Stage, 2025 Addison St. (off Shattuck), Berkeley, through Nov. 23. Night performances, Tuesdays, Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Wednesdays and Sundays, 7 p.m. Matinees, Saturdays and Sundays, 2 p.m. Tickets: $14.50 to $89, subject to change, (510) 647-2949 or www.berkeleyrep.org.

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