The music-infused play “Party People” explores how emotionally taxing it is “to be woke” today.
Katherine Brooks: Senior Arts & Culture Editor, The Huffington Post.
“Party People” opens on a young man ― a Panther Cub ― practicing a monologue before a propped-up camera. His words cut through the audience as he recounts his Black Panther father, or more accurately, the absence of his long-imprisoned Black Panther father. The speech is partly a recognition of the paternal greatness that came before the Cub, but more so an indictment of the recklessness and abandonment of a generation of activism that he feels hasn’t paid off yet.
At least, not for the generation coming of age today, still fighting against police brutality and other forms of institutionalized racism.
The music-infused play, created by the theater ensemble Universes and developed by “Eclipsed” director Liesl Tommy, eventually culminates in a reunion between these generations. Facilitated by artists-slash-activists Malik (the Cub) and Jimmy, the confrontational gathering pits an older group of people, profoundly proud of their struggle to provide health benefits to a community so often denied them, against a youthful contingent, resentful of the fact that their parents sacrificed so much ― namely, their families ― to start a revolution with no end in sight. A generation confused as to what their role in fighting injustice should be.
Jimmy isn’t a descendent of Panthers, though. Jimmy is the nephew of a member of the Young Lords, which, according to the Bronx Museum, was “a radical social organization led by poor and working-class Puerto Rican youth in the 1960s.” History books have been unkind to the Black Panthers, often misrepresenting their role in instituting necessary social programs across the U.S., but the Young Lords have largely been denied a story entirely. Very few students learn about the Young Lords’ activism, advocating for affordable housing, higher employment, and police reform.
“If you truly do your research on the Black Panthers […] they were about coalition building,” Steven Sapp, Universes co-founder, explained to The Huffington Post. He cited Fred Hampton’s Rainbow Coalition, consisting of the Black Panthers, Young Lords, Young Patriots, members of the American Indian Movement, Brown Berets, I Wor Kuen, and even the White Panther Party. “It is important for us to see this type of unity that existed then and should continue now. It is this type of effort that should cross color lines, to show that liberation is a human struggle that can crush white supremacy, and will fight it as a coalition.”
“Party People” is currently running at the Public Theater in New York City. Ahead of the show’s closing this month, we spoke to the director, Tommy, to discuss the power of coalition-building, the gaping divides between generations, and the legacy of activism people in the Black Lives Matter movement are coming to terms with today.
What initially drew you to the subject matter of “Party People” ― the history of the Black Panthers as well as the Young Lords?
Well, you know, I’m originally from South Africa. I grew up there during the apartheid era. I come from an activist world. And when my family immigrated to the states, my father was someone who made sure that I had heard a lot about freedom struggles around the world. So I thought when I came to this country that I was in some ways more familiar with this slice of American history than the average American was. That’s not really something that they taught in school. But revolutionary movements, that was just something that I grew up being aware of because we were in the midst of a revolutionary struggle ourselves.
Obviously, a lot of Black Panthers’ history has been unfortunately censored or distorted throughout the years; it’s barely taught in most schools. But the history of the Young Lords is probably even less visible to a lot of people.
Oh my gosh, some […] have no idea there was even a movement called the Young Lords.
I mean, to be quite honest, I didn’t either. So I was wondering, was it important for you and the production team to not only pay homage to 50 years of the Black Panthers but to also pay tribute to these lesser-known allies who were also fighting the liberation?
Oh, 100 percent. Because Universes, the writers, they’re all from New York. They are Puerto Rican and African-American, and they grew up sort of as the beneficiary of some of the Young Lords’ social programs. When they came up with the idea to do the show, the Young Lords and the Black Panthers were very, very much for them equally potent and important.
What kind of research went into this production for you? How closely did you work with Universes?
Well, Universes, they got the commission from OSF [Oregon Shakespeare Festival]. OSF does this American Revolution series where they commission writers to write on certain topics. And Universes, they were the ones who said, we want write about the ‘60s and the revolutionary movement of that time. That was, for them, the world of the Black Panthers.
And then they got a grant and they were able to travel all around the country and interview Young Lords and Black Panthers. After they had done that for a year and they had all of this material it was time to pick a director. That’s when they reached out to me and I was brought on board. Before there was a play, they had written a lot of songs and poems and kind of spoken-word pieces in response to their interviews. They had a massive amount of writing. But what they wanted for this particular show is different than anything that they’ve done before. What they wanted was a narrative ― you know, characters ― and they wanted a story arc. And because I did a lot of play developments, they felt like I’d be able to help them unpack it.
And also because of my background and the kind of work that I’ve done. You know, I’m a person who’s done Shakespeare, I’ve done political work. And that’s what they do. Their work was really language-based. It’s new. It’s political. There’s a lot of movement and there’s a lot of music. They wanted someone who could speak all of those languages.
Are the primary characters sort of just amalgams of historical figures?
Yes. The thing that’s really interesting to me about this kind of work is that with “Eclipsed,” that also came from a lot of interviews that Danai Gurira did. You know, I do a lot of work that involves a tremendous amount of historical and political research. And what happens with every single one of these projects is you fall in love with people and you fall in love with stories. And so you make connections and that’s where you build the narrative. And the hardest part was figuring out which of these incredibly moving and incredibly powerful and incredibly inspiring and incredibly tragic and incredibly funny stories makes it into the play. There’s just so much carving and sculpting that has to happen.
All of the characters in the play are a composite of many, many people. And many, many stories.
I don’t think that it’s explicitly stated whether or not Malik and Jimmy are sort of representatives of the Black Lives Matter movement. But was that sort of part of the intention, of drawing a line from the Black Panthers and the Young Lords to today’s activist environment, which I think in many ways is probably grounded by the Black Lives Matter movement?
That’s a very interesting question. I think what I was actually interested in was Jimmy and Malik being a parallel for Universes. Because Universes, as artists, have been activists their whole lives. They started off as activists and artists, and that’s what I am as well. So the question, when you are an artist and you also believe in having a political point of view in your work, is that question of, Are you doing enough? Have you gone far enough? Is it really political? You know, it’s always there.
But what you are identifying is absolutely true. What we all cared a lot about is the evolution of activism among youth today. Because when we started doing this ― we did this the first production in 2012, our second production in 2014, and now in 2016 ― youth and activism has changed so much over the last six years. When we did the play the first time there was no Black Lives Matter movement. But when we did it at Berkeley in 2014, we were living through ― Ferguson had just happened, Trayvon. Things were so potent. So we thought we had to address what was going on. We did a rewrite for the end of this production because, you know, the conversation between this generation of activists and the earlier generation of activists is very much alive and evolving.
I want to get to a question that I have about the end of the production. But first I wanted to talk about the pains of the generational divides that you guys are painting in “Party People” that are just incredibly visceral. One of the ways that you do that is that you have all these nods to technology. I loved how the older generation was talking about archives and tapes and collections and then the younger generation was, you know, streaming on Facebook Live. Do you see technology as a primary driver of generational dissonance?
I absolutely do. Sometimes I think about my parents ― my father in the ‘70s. And then I think about him using his iPad [today]. The violence with which he puts his fingers on the screen. I’m like, Dad, you don’t need to be that rough with it. Just gently tap it, it will respond to a gentle touch. It’s crazy how fast things are changing in terms of technology. That moment you’re referring to in the play, when the younger generation talks about the power of clicking “Share,” in terms of activism. And how shut down the older generation is about that being a real thing. The real thing for them was being in the community and making change, right? The question I think this generation is grappling with is the meaning of being in the community and making change and technology and clicking “Share.” How do you marry the two objectives?
At the end of the production, there’s a semblance of resolution in terms of the fact that the two generations come to what seems like a temporary détente. But it doesn’t feel entirely complete. So do you feel like the dialogue between generations, it’s just something that’s continuously ongoing and incomplete?
I like the kinds of questions you’re asking me because I recently got into a really vigorous argument with friends of mine about the so-called millennials. Two of them are professors. And I was listening to them going on and on about millennials. This is crazy to me […] there’s always ridiculous articles in Time magazine about this generation or that generation. Why do we do this? As a culture? It happens all the time. So that’s something that I find endlessly fascinating. It happens with every single generation, where you have to name the generation coming up. And then you have to tear them apart. Why?
Do you find any sort of benefit in that friction? Like, is that sort of necessary to move us forward?
I think that as long as there is dialogue and there’s some knowledge there. What’s exciting to me about working on this play is that the younger generation slaps back. So that it’s not just the older generation telling them all the ways that they were wrong. They fight for their point of view because a younger generation challenging the status quo is the only way that change happens.
And I feel passionately about this because I come from a culture where it was always youth movements that propelled political unrest in Africa during the struggle, you know, because the leaders were always arrested and banned and exiled and murdered. So the demonstrations often came out of high school student movements. I understand the necessity for youthful challenge of status quo. It’s essential to the growth of society.
To be woke is very emotionally, psychically, physically taxing.
One of the other characters that I was really interested in was Clara, because through her we sort of witness this desire to opt out of politics completely.
You know, while Malik and Jimmy are trying to be advocates for change in a different way than their parents, Clara initially feels burdened by the idea that she’s required to fight for change in any way.
Why was it important for you and the team to explore this stance?
I feel that this is very real stance. Universes spent a lot of time with what are called Panther Cubs. These are the children of activists and we spend a lot of time in the show talking about that generation and the rejection that they felt and the inadequacy that they felt when they have these towering influences in their lives.
How do you be the next generation? It’s very difficult. There’s a potent inadequacy that these young people felt. And one way of dealing with it is to just completely distance yourself from it because you know it’s very draining to live a life of activism. It is very, very taxing. It’s why the majority of people in this world just you know do their job and then do their families. You know I mean? To be woke is very emotionally, psychically, physically taxing.
And I have to say that I really connect with Clara, because when I came to this country I used to give speeches about divestment. And then I went to college and I felt really sick of the sound of my own voice. I was always so outspoken and I was always telling people what to think, because that was the world I was raised in. When I got to college, I was like, I’m going to be a new me. […] That didn’t last very long, unfortunately.
That’s not really how I was meant to roll in this world.
I think that Clara having grown up with so much turmoil and passionate people fighting for their lives and fighting for the lives of everyone around them, she just wants peace and quiet. And I totally relate to that on some level. And also, you don’t have to feel inadequate if you’re not putting yourself out there. So I think she’s a really important voice in terms of legacy. Because that’s the other thing we’re dealing with in this show is the legacy of these activists.
I really like this description that Playbill used when describing you. They said that you are a person driven to make political work that is also entertaining. So I just wanted to ask you how you, in all of your shows, toe this line between wanting to create something that’s politically aware but also striving to keep audiences simply entertained.
Yeah, I mean, I would be a journalist if I wasn’t interested in entertaining. You know what I mean? Or I would write pamphlets or I would be a college professor, if it was really just about making political statements. I really love it when audiences laugh and I love it when audiences cry and I love it when audiences get angry. Because that is the point for me of theater. It’s about a communal discussion.
It’s vital as an artist to create an environment where we get to look at ourselves together and laugh together and cry together and challenge ourselves together. That is the purpose of theater and a live experience. So for me I’m always asking: Is this thing funny enough? Is this dangerous enough? Is this scary enough? How do you make it as engaging as possible for the audience? Because that’s my job.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
“Party People” is running at the Public Theater in New York City until Dec. 11, 2016.