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Looking Back in Protest: Two Revolutionary Movements Reunite in the Moving Party People

Tuesday, Nov 4 2014

It's grim, difficult to watch, and doesn't entirely coalesce until Act Two, but everyone should see Party People.

It's not perfect theater, but it's extremely good theater that speaks to inter- and intra-racial violence, income inequality, government surveillance, and divided brothers and sisters — America's issues of yesterday, today, and realistically, tomorrow.

Directed by Berkeley Rep Associate Director Liesl Tommy and written and developed by Universes, a three-person New York-based ensemble, the nearly three-hour play occasionally stretches into teaching that feels like preaching. But when the characters drop their "talk to the audience" format and engage with each other, the experience is powerful, poignant, and painful.

And anyone wondering why many people view the events on Aug. 9 in Ferguson, Mo. — the shooting by a white law enforcement officer of an unarmed black man — as history tragically repeating itself, will find an answer on the Berkeley thrust stage.

The play meshes a collage of music, live and recorded video, and dance with a narrative based on interviews collected from people involved in or touched by the Black Panther Party and the Young Lords, two 1960s revolutionary movements.

In the Bay Area, specifically Oakland, the Black Panthers created community programs that provided free social services like school breakfasts and health clinics for a primarily black community. Dressed in black leather and rising up in the name of social justice and civil rights, their counterculture activism challenged existing white power structures, triggering an investigation by the FBI. Eventually, internal struggles, sparked by the FBI's infusion of mistrust, cannibalized their operations.

At the same time in New York, Chicago, Hayward, and other locations, the Young Lords were a Puerto Rican social club battling for equal rights for brown people, but the police described the Lords as "a street gang."

Party People brings members of both groups together under the theatrical construct of a reunion at an art show about the Black Panthers and the Young Lords presented by two young men who are direct descendants of the 1960s activists.

As the young artists, Christopher Livingston (Malik) and William Ruiz (Jimmy) provide perfect contrast: The former is as logical as a calculator; the latter as flamboyant as the brilliant orange bunny suit he wears. Their snapshot characters are played deliberately and skillfully — more surface than substance, creating the ideal texture for the rest of the crew.

J. Bernard Calloway (an impressive Blue), C. Kelly Wright (solid as Amira), and Robynn Rodriguez (managing to be wise, wispy, and wiry in two roles, Donna and Fina) are the steel girding framing their more emotional counterparts. Sophia Ramos (Maruca), Jesse J. Perez (Tito), Mildred Ruiz-Sapp (Helita) and Michael Elich (Marcus/Roger) give performances that are burning, relentless, and refusing to be cooled.

In Act Two, where conflict and confrontation get rolling and the Panthers begin to unravel, Amy Lizardo (Clara) characterizes the ascent of a younger generation of protesters that recognizes that the earlier generation wasn't always working for their best interests: "You sacrificed everything, even us, and didn't change anything," she says. Her balcony lament, sung in Spanish, is beyond heartbreaking. A re-enactment of the FBI's infiltration butts up against Steven Sapp (Omar), braying in protest and surrounded by the men in the cast, who beat out choreographer Millicent Johnnie's streamlined movement motifs with ceaseless ferocity.

Director Tommy is at her best in this thick throttle atmosphere, where vindictive accusations fly at people gaining power, others succumb to drug addictions and battle their own worst selves, tender moments of grief are expressed by resting a forehead on a bullet-riddled door, and a patriarchal society's downfall is summed up in a casually tossed comment, "Machismo can never be revolutionary." Ultimately, with the cast reciting "Land, bread, housing, give me justice, give me peace," Party People unsettlingly suggests that unrest, not peaceful resolution, unites a still-splintered society.

Certainly, the play introduces more issues than it answers, but asking the right questions — and Party People does — is arguably what art does best.

About The Author

Lou Fancher

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