"Party People," which opened Saturday in the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's New Theatre, is a high-energy, vibrant, roller coaster ride — via dialogue, monologue, poetry, music and dance — of the rise and fall of the Black Panther Party and the Young Lords, two minority-based revolutionary groups of the 1960s and 1970s.
Commissioned by OSF as part of its American Revolutions: The U.S. History Cycle series, "Party People" is a creation of the New York City-based performance group Universes. The play is based on interviews the group conducted with former members of the Black Panthers and Young Lords. Using those stories, "Party People" explores the myths and the realities of The Revolution.
The setting is a contemporary art gallery. Two 20-something guys, the Puerto Rican multi-media performance artist Jimmy "Primo" (William "Ninja" Ruiz) and the wannabe Black Panther Malik (Christopher Livingston), are organizing an exhibit of photos, videos and memorabilia from the 1960s and 1970s. They have invited former members of the Panthers and the Lords to view the installation.
Malik, the son of a jailed Black Panther, sees this reunion as a passport to acceptance by his father's peers. Jimmy plans to use videos of the event — and his performance in them — as a credential toward his artistic bona fides.
Veterans of the movement are now in their 60s. A trip down memory lane for them is not going to be anything like what you or I would conjure up about the era. But even revolutionaries get the blues. Not to mention a bit nostalgic.
"Party People" is directed by Liesl Tommy, who directed "Ruined" at OSF in 2010, and performed by the members of Universes, Mildred Ruiz-Sapp, Steven Sapp and William Ruiz, and OSF actors. Together they seamlessly weave a moving, mesmerizing tale.
Universes uses a broad audio-visual vocabulary for the telling. Poetry, dialogue and monologue are combined with dance and music that draw upon rap, hip-hop, salsa, boleros, flamenco, jazz, gospel and blues.
The Black Panthers and the Young Lords were born from the anger and frustration of the ghetto and the lessons learned from the Vietnam War. These were political revolutions, yes, but also a struggle to change the poverty, illness, poor education and police brutality that permeated African-American and Latino urban communities. Along with the guns, military tactics and revolutionary rhetoric, both the Panthers and Lords established programs for free breakfasts for children, health care clinics, education and urban renewal. Internal leadership struggles, infiltration and sabotage by the FBI, mass arrests and convictions destroyed both groups.
Universes presents us with all of this. There are the snitches and maybe-snitches and accused snitches, such as Omar (Steven Sapp) and his memories of being tortured by other Panther members to force him to confess that he was an informant. We meet Jimmy's uncle Tito (Mateo Gomez), drunk, angry, disillusioned and still in love with fellow Lords member Helita (Ruiz-Sapp) after all these years, and Marcus (Michael Elich), the white Panther sympathizer who is now drugged out, paranoid and lost in pain.
There are the women, denied a leadership role but somehow holding — or trying to hold — it all together, such as Amira (Kimberly Scott), Helita and the seductive, disruptive Maruca (Miriam A. Laube), still justifying betrayal.
"Party People" has some wonderful, truly memorable moments, such as Peter Macon's monologue on being black or Ruiz-Sapp's extraordinary flamenco heel work. There is the exchange between Blue (G. Valmont Thomas) and Donna (Robynn Rodriguez) over the killing of her white policeman husband and the trumped-up charges that sent Blue to prison for 25 years. And Malik's description of his pain at always being an outsider.
But this is also a work deliberately designed to evolve as it is performed, and there are some missteps. Having Jimmy don a Bozo the Clown outfit to tease out angry responses from the veterans trivializes the poignancy here, as does the brief use of a game show device to recall the search for a hidden informant. These are key plot points and they diminish the larger story as well as Jimmy's character arc.
"Party People" makes an important point that both Jimmy and Malik are products of the commitment of their parents to the concepts of equality, justice and achievement. Both have left the ghetto behind and yet are still tied to it. Their anger comes from the bitter reality that their parents' sacrifices did little to change the system. "Party People" is strongest when it keeps the sacrifice and the anger in sharp focus.
The production is enhanced by the spare scaffolding set by Clint Ramos, video design by Pablo N. Molina and original music, sound design and vocal direction by Broken Chord (Daniel Baker and Aaron Meicht, who also did the music for "Ruined"). The low key and authentic costume design is by ESosa.
"Party People" has the feeling that it is still evolving, still developing. It's an exciting and moving experience now, but I'm also curious to see its form later in its run. There's a lot to work with and some very talented people working on it. "Party People" plays until Nov. 3.
Roberta Kent is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.