Entertainment » Theatre

Party People

by Marcus Scott
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Monday Nov 21, 2016
Party People

If you're looking for a real revolution, run to an off-Broadway theater. A prime example is that of the meta-historical fiction musical drama "Party People," conceived by the spoken-word collective UNIVERSES, now in production at the Public Theater.

Commissioned by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival for its "American Revolutions" cycle, "Party People" is both an eye-peeling exposé on the relationship vis-à-vis the counterdemonstration of the 1960s and zeitgeist of armchair activists of the 2010s, as well as a scathing indictment of U.S. protest culture and the Trump-ed up trickle-down era of American politics.

Written by husband-and-wife super duo Steven Sapp and Mildred Ruiz-Sapp and William Ruiz a.k.a Ninja (Mildred's brother), "Party People" is a dissertation of sorts analyzing and emphasizing the significance of the Black Panther Party and the Young Lords Party, two grassroots nationalist and socialist activism organizations that infiltrated the 1960s political counterculture, creating a lasting impact on human rights for persons of color in the U.S.

Given that the zenith of civil unrest proceeding in the aftermath of the 2016 presidential election and the rampant fear-mongering, this ruthlessly ambitious and bloated urban contemporary multimedia semi-docudrama installation musical feels more like a highly recommended PBS special for the proscenium stage than a fun night on the town.

In fact, it's required viewing, especially in a radical climate saturated with movements like the war on terror and Islamophobia, the alt-right neo-Nazi crusade, the Tetris politicking of the "Great Wall of Trump," Brexit, the Black Lives Matter phenomena and the threat of an American police state.

Boosted by strong performances by a 12-member ensemble, "Party People" follows Malik (played by Christopher Livingston), a contemporary twenty-something indie African-American videographer and Panther Cub who goes by the name of "MK Ultra," suffering from the lifelong trauma of visiting his revolutionary father since infancy at a maximum security prison, where he's serving a life sentence.

He wears typical Black Panthers regalia, including the iconic leather jacket and beret, with the façade of hip-hop braggadocio and African Studies pseudo-intellectualism. With his best friend, Jimmy (played by William Ruiz, a.k.a Ninja), a Puerto Rican visual/performing artist whose alter ego is an insufferable clown provocateur dubbed "Primo," they have conducted numerous interviews with former party members of the Black Panther Party and the Young Lords Party and spliced them into a digital arts manifesto that straddles the lines between paying tribute and illuminating tacit truths.

Then there's Clara (played by Gizel Jiménez), also Puerto Rican, who lost both of her parents to the revolution, with her mother giving her up for adoption to serve other children in broken communities and losing her father to martyrdom. Each of these overeducated and due diligent movers and shakers has the lion's share of childhood angst as the product of insurrection.

Malik wants to fill the shoes his father left behind but isn't being taken seriously. Jimmy desperately seeks the approval of his uncle Tito (played by a terrific Jesse J. Perez), a former revolutionary and recovering addict who volunteers at a prison reentry program and is still involved in union organizing. Clara, an orphan, struggles with the legacy of her parents.

Interspersed with musical numbers that pivot between jazz rap, electro-funk, breakbeat, hip-hop, Latin soul and R&B with glimmers of agitprop, "Party People" gets its bearing when the gaggle of weathered guerrilla dissenters from both parties show up to the viewing of this long-awaited passion project the boys have come up with. Burdened by years of guilt, decades-long resentments, cloak-and-dagger duplicity, recovery, fear-induced trauma and repressed memories, each of these aging fearless street warriors is forced to come face to face with his past.

Planning to stream the event on Facebook and other social media platforms, Malik and Jimmy engineer a VH1-flavored reality television reunion intended to document the tension and catharsis of the graying collective of activists in real-time. Throughout the show, the younger armchair activists make a plea for their brand of digital screen insurgency, arguing that the old way of protesting did not work; the Young Lords failed to give Puerto Rico autonomy, while the Black Panthers did not end police brutality, with many of them being incarcerated or murdered due to FBI infiltration.

Jimmy, as Primo, even parodies their successes, or lack thereof, with a list of recent black martyrs flashing across flat screens in Las Vegas font; police-shooting victims like Trayvon Martin, Freddie Gray, Alton Sterling and Sandra Bland scroll from one side of the stage to the next. But these vainglorious and smug youth don't have all the answers.

One thing is for certain; they have very different ideas of what uprising, political and cultural amendments and social transformation mean. "There is no 401k connected to the struggle, no retirement plan connected to this," Tito says. "I know that the armchair revolutionary thing bothers you, but if you are asking to join this struggle, then you have to ask yourself what are you willing to sacrifice. Because if you are not willing to sacrifice, then there is no revolution."

Amira, a former Black Panther played by a phenomenal Ramona Keller, dissembles armchair activism with an iron fist in a velvet glove: "You think wearing a hoodie and calling yourself Trayvon means something? Or throwing on a T-shirt that has a great tag line, like Hands Up, or I Can't Breathe, or even Black Lives Matter is enough? I can appreciate the visual solidarity, but there is another step to be taken. Are you really involved? Are you on the ground working? When we were in the Party, we were in the community, serving the community. There were no "hashtags" then. When there were issues of people being hungry, we fed the people. When we saw people needed health care, we started our own free clinics."

With eye-popping visual spectacular by master projection designer Sven Ortel, ultimately as a production, "Party People" is a signal for a missed opportunity for the Public Theater to present what could have been a perfect storm as a workshop and not as a main stage show. Like "The Total Bent" before it, a little more time in the black box could have turned this very good show that brings both arguments of age and youth to the table into a chef-d'oeuvre of American theater.

Wildly uneven in its first half and devoid of humor, the show's creators seem married to certain moments that sit idle with little payoff; a major subplot regarding internal sabotage and domestic terror did not get the required attention it deserved. With a story as essential and significant as the story of Black Panthers Party and the Young Lords parties, one might ask whether the writers could have explored capitalism and its various effects on progressive movements.

Nevertheless, the solid cast of colorful, creative caricatures more than makes up with what they are given, even when there are vastly different tonal shifts, both musically and emotionally.

Still, there are moments of heart-shattering genius. Speaking to a terrified Malik, Amira evaluates progress in modern-day American culture: "The Party was a continuation of the first slave uprising, and we are still fighting that fight! It's my only fight. Why do you think that the FBI and the CIA unleashed their dogs of war on us? Why do you think Donald Trump is the president? This country has never wanted us to be free. After all these years, I live by this, no permanent friends, no permanent enemies, permanent principles."

With lines that good, who cares? All is forgiven.

"Party People" runs through December 11 at Anspacher Theater on at Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street in New York. For tickets or information, call 212-967-7555 or visit http://www.publictheater.org/

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