But is it theater? If we use Chekhov's criterion for theater -- that its purpose is to raise questions rather than answer them -- it's a profoundly timely piece, coming, as it does, in the midst of national introspection. As a play it eschews entertainment. It opts instead to disturb the audience and keep us off balance in relation to black power activist Huey P. Newton, who terrified white America in the late '60s by advocating violence as a means for bringing about revolution. I suspect that blacks and whites will see it from very different points of view.
As co-founder (with Bobby Seale) of the Black Panther Party in 1966, Newton was unapologetic in his demands for equality and freedom. He had little use for nonviolent resistance as preached by Martin Luther King Jr., and believed that blacks had a right (indeed, a duty) to defend themselves by whatever means possible. He saw the black power movement as a necessary response to the brutality inflicted over the centuries by whites.
But A Huey P. Newton Story is not a history lesson. It's closer in nature to a character study, a staged portrait, if you will, of a man in a box. The story of someone who is forever trapped in his own mythology; who was imprisoned first by the authorities and then by the expectations of those who would be his followers. This is a drama in which the main character is both the hero and the villain. Newton was an enigma, even to himself. A leader who did not believe in leaders, a poet and philosopher who could not stay off drugs and alcohol.
There's a persistent and pervasive B-movie quality to this production brilliantly enhanced by lighting designer David Welle, who also created the simple platform set. The play begins in darkness with voice-overs of various news reports of Newton's murder in 1989, when he was gunned down on the streets of Oakland in a drug-related incident: "A strong black man who would not be pushed around" is replaced by the mantra "You scare people, Huey."
When the lights come up, Newton is seated with an ashtray to one side and a microphone in front. He faces the audience, his hands gripping the arms of the wooden chair, as though he were a prisoner about to be executed. He wears somber dark slacks and shirt, which look at first like an institutional jumpsuit. Even though he acknowledges the presence of the audience, he seems trapped. He might be in an interrogation cell forced to face us through a false mirror.
As Newton, Smith is never, never still. His legs jiggle, his eyes dart about, he lights countless cigarettes. (He is never, never not smoking.) He taps the mike, laughs self-consciously, and mumbles, "I hate interviews." We believe him. Or do we? If he hates interviews, what's he doing there? Is he the prisoner or are we? It's the start of an uneasy relationship in which Newton the legend and Newton the character seem to be engaging us, while Newton the man is hardly able to contain his contempt (or is it affection?) for us. This ambiguity is what gives the show its power and what makes it a show. There are classic conflicts here, between the character and himself and between the character and the audience. We won't know until the end if anyone gets out alive.
He then launches the interview (if that's what this is -- there is no one asking questions) with an explication of Black Panther Party philosophy, including its 10 demands, and explains that "the Black Panther Party is merely the vanguard of the revolution. [The leaders] are the tip of the spear, the people are the butt of the spear [that] does the real damage." With utmost civility he reminds us that "existence is violent," but that there's a difference between violence and the defense of the people.
We get a minimal account of his life. The child of poor rural blacks from Louisiana, Newton grew up in Oakland, where his father moved the family. Taught from an early age to resist racism, Newton resisted all authority. He was functionally illiterate until his older brother managed to engage him with poetry. Watching Huey Newton the narrator describe Huey Newton the boy being awakened to the fact of his own intelligence is one of the show's most moving and powerful moments. For an instant there is a moment of blissful freedom.
As Newton the character talks, Smith the performer grimaces, pops his eyes as though on speed, shakes, trembles, giggles, and smokes, smokes, smokes. Behind him are projected slides of sea gulls, soaring effortlessly over San Francisco Bay. Program notes tell us that these are actual photographs taken by Newton from his high-rise apartment, "where he trained a telescope and camera on his former jail cell," as well as on the sky, the bay, and the waterfront.
The projections remind us that there is a larger picture, that this show exists in a context. Scenically, the view progresses from shots of the jail to soaring gulls to the waterfront swathed in fog. The photographs are serene and soothing and create a sense of constancy that runs counter to what we are seeing in the man. As Newton disintegrates, he jumps out of his seat and performs a kind of Saint Vitus' dance to Bob Dylan's "Something's Happening." The dance becomes shadow boxing, which turns into what seem to be convulsions. Watching the show is an exercise in discomfort, like being held hostage by a mental patient, whether it's Newton delineating the Black Panther Party's operating principles or deconstructing Bob Dylan's lyric about geeks and freaks or reading his own poetry.
The final irony of this tortured life follows Newton's imprisonment at the hands of the FBI, made bearable by the audible presence of loyalists chanting, "Free Huey." His subsequent release is bittersweet as he confounds the expectations of those who wanted a messiah. "The people freed me," he tells us, but they seemed powerless thereafter. "People," he exhorts them/us, "you freed Huey, now why don't you go on and free yourselves?"
Those who hope that A Huey P. Newton Story will supply an eloquent voice of leadership for today will be disappointed, as will those seeking entertainment. But those interested in bearing witness to one of the significant lives of the 20th century will not be let down.
A Huey P. Newton Story runs through Nov. 19 at the Magic Theatre in S.F.; call 441-8822.