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.