Party People: The Heart of Revolution
By Lou Fancher
You can practice and perfect a borrowed revolution, but what if you could make your own?
That radical idea rumbles from the basement of Berkeley Rep’s Ground Floor program and gives rise to Party People, the cage-rattling production opening October 24. Incubated in workshops and residencies, fermented in the steep juices of creative minds, and injected with the energy of of live video, hip hop, jazz, rock, gospel, blues,
Latin rhythms, and spoken word, Party People unpacks the legacy of the Black Panthers and Young Lords through the eyes of young counterculturalists at an art opening.
Written by Universes (Steven Sapp, Mildred Ruiz-Sapp, and William Ruiz), an international, racially-mixed ensemble known for possessing a rumble of their own, Liesl Tommy, associate director at Berkeley Rep, directs. Party People premiered in 2012 at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF). Since then, the play has undergone renovation.
Tommy entered the scene a full year before the OSF opening and said in an interview that collaboration has been a pivot point all along. Centralizing the voices of people interviewed, writers, dramaturges, Artistic Director Tony Taccone, the cast, Tommy and the rest of the creative team has meant change. But isn’t that the heart of revolution?
That rhetorical question wasn’t the only one we had. Here, Tommy answered further queries by email.
You directed this at OSF. How will the production in Berkeley differ?
The script is tighter because we learned a lot from the OSF production and we had a clear game plan going into the second phase of dramaturgical development. We had a more specific agenda about how we wanted to unpack certain relationships and characters, how we wanted to push certain tensions and arcs as well as where we wanted to add music.
What was your entry point to the Black Panther Party and Young Lord history?
I knew a lot of the history going in because I've done plays as well as research on this era. The brilliant thing about working on this show was getting to meet some of the heroes of the era due to their relationships with Universes. People in the Bay Area may know more about the Black Panthers than the Young Lords, even though the Chicago-based Puerto Rican coalition had a strong presence in Hayward.
What aspects of the Young Lords do you emphasize?
We talk about their creation, their programs as well as the internal tensions and factionalism as well as how they were infiltrated by the FBI. I don't know if this is most important in terms of their history, but based on the characters in our show, those are the aspects of the story that came out.
You’ve said the Black Panthers are “personally resonant.” What does that phrase mean?
I was raised in South Africa during Apartheid so I am a child of The Struggle. Much of my work as a director has been about or explored themes of struggles for freedom, for equality, for civil rights or for identity. So this particular part of American history is deeply resonant for me....
What discoveries, what did you learn about the BPs and the Lords while working on the
The biggest discovery—out of too many—was that the survivors genuinely felt like they were fighting a war, and that the fallout from that war is devastating, longstanding and life changing. Some folks have PTSD and have not recovered, while other folks have forced themselves into a place of healing. But many feel like they are veterans of a war fought at home, which the majority of the population now has no idea about. That's pretty profound.
What is the narrative arc tying it all together?
The narrative arc is a story about two young artists putting on a show about the era, (much like what we are doing in the show) and taking the Party People on a journey through the younger generation’s interpretation of the past. But it very much takes place in the present and is viewed through the eyes and memories of the former Lords and Panthers. And what ties all that together is music and dance.
Looking into the most important themes: what do you want audiences to experience, what kind of conversations are you hoping they have as they leave the theatre?
I hope the audience, if they lived through the era, gets a sense of how important that time was, how we value it and how we recognize the sacrifice of those who participated in it. And for those in the audience who are too young to have lived through it, or to even have learnt about it, that they get a sense of the enormity and power of the movement. And that there's lots for them to go home and Google!
Music plays a big part in any social, cultural or civil rights movement: What can you tell us about the music in Party People?
There's a lot of it! It's pretty thrilling and highly infectious! It also inspires and moves like the stories we heard from the survivors of this part of history. The gift of Universes is to be able to musicalize the most complicated story into something accessible and super
You once told me you were drawn to three things in a production of Hamlet: violence, grief, magical realism. Are these also elements that drew you to this show or are there others?
OMG I can’t believe you remember that!! I’m so BUSTED because you'll see all those themes in this one too....it must be what I'm always drawn to! Also the question of what is a hero, when are we ready to sacrifice ourselves for the greater good, and how do we experience communal memory?