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A CurtainUp Review
By Jacob Horn
Over time, the Panthers would become more widely known as a militant and revolutionary group, but Party members would remain deeply involved with community survival programs in cities across the country. The Party would also inspire a Puerto Rican radical social activist group, the Young Lords, with similar aims in other marginalized communities of color.
It is, of course, not simply on the occasion of this milestone anniversary that Party People, by the multi-disciplinary artist ensemble UNIVERSES (Steven Sapp, Mildred Ruiz-Sapp, and William Ruiz a.k.a. Ninja), examines the legacy of the Black Panthers and Young Lords. The musical, which makes its New York debut at the Public Theater under the direction of Liesl Tommy, pertains as much to the history of these groups as it does to the social media–fueled rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, to the spate of recent events exposing the major lack of civil rights for people of color from Flint to Ferguson, and to the outcome and aftermath of the recent presidential election.
Based in part on dozens of interviews with former Black Panthers and Young Lords, Party People depicts the conflicts that surface as the young artists Malik "Mk Ultra" (Christopher Livingston) and Jimmy "Primo" (Ruiz a.k.a. Ninja) stage an art event documenting the histories of the two parties. When they bring together a group of alumni of both organizations, old tensions come to the fore, a generational divide becomes apparent, and the motivations of everyone involved are placed under intense scrutiny.
Shifting constantly, and sometimes imperceptibly, between past and present, the narrative arc of the musical can be dizzying. The combination of historical documentary and a meta-theatrical plot can be difficult to navigate at times. It feels like an imbalance between the first act, which advances the plot in a fairly straight line, and the second, which follows a more zig-zaggy route.
But the structural foibles of the show are easy to look past when you consider the power of its performances and its staggering, gut-punching relevance. Certainly, the pertinence of the work is obvious throughout, but it's a speech towards its end—part condemnation and part call to action—by one of the former Panthers, Amira (Ramona Keller), that connects past and present in a manner that is so blunt and undeniable that it sends chills down your spine.
The strong ensemble cast manages to strike a careful balance between reverence for and examination of the Party members and their actions. They convey the radical drive motivating these individuals, while also showing that many of these people didn't always see their actions as revolutionary as much as simply necessary, or in some cases even had ulterior motives. By representing a diverse range of life experiences in the show, UNIVERSES leads us to recognize the good the Party members did while also placing a critical eye on the sacrifices they made and the means they used.
Party People is enriched by stylistic diversity as well, incorporating a variety of musical styles (Broken Chord composed the show along with UNIVERSES), dance (Millicent Johnnie is choreographer), spoken-word poetry, and multimedia visuals (including projection design by Sven Ortel). While live feeds within the theater (which allude to the use of social media in the present day and the surveillance Party members were subjected to) can prove somewhat distracting, the use of video also proves a helpful way to offer additional historical background and exposition.
That the show builds in this history and doesn't assume or require an extensive background knowledge of the Parties is as much a gesture of inclusivity as it is a critique of the way the organizations have been mischaracterized in collective memory, or omitted altogether. While their viewpoint is nuanced and considered on each side, UNIVERSES is hardly ideologically neutral, and they seem eager to initiate dialogue with this new work (to this end, performances after opening will include post-show discussions with members of the creative team).
Provocation isn't unusual, but this musical stands out when it empowers the audience as much as challenges them. Might Party People leave a different impression if it weren't opening so soon after the election, when that kind of empowerment to speak and act is exactly what so many people are craving?
Perhaps a story about the struggle for civil rights rings with a particular poignancy these days. But it's also a key point of the show that existential threats to people and communities of color are nothing new, and the world many are now recognizing as strange and unfamiliar is all too familiar to many marginalized populations.
Still, it's undeniable that, in the aftermath of an election cycle featuring some of the most racially charged rhetoric in decades, this is a work that has taken on a different kind of resonance and urgency. And, for better or for worse, that position makes it one of the most important shows on stage today.
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By UNIVERSES: Steven Sapp, Mildred Ruiz-Sapp, and William Ruiz a.k.a. Ninja
Composed by UNIVERSES with Broken Chord
Choreographed by Millicent Johnnie
Directed by Liesl Tommy
with Christopher Livingston (Malik "Mk Ultra"), William Ruiz a.k.a. Ninja (Jimmy "Primo"), Steven Sapp (Omar), Oberon K.A. Adjepong (Blue), Ramona Keller (Amira), Jesse J. Perez (Tito), Mildred Ruiz-Sapp (Helita), Sophia Ramos (Maruca), Gizel Jiménez (Clara), Michael Elich (Marcus/FBI Agent), Robynn Rodriguez (Donna/Fina), and Horace V. Rogers (Solias)
Scenic and Lighting Design: Marcus Doshi
Costume Design: Meg Neville
Sound Design and Vocal Direction: Broken Chord
Projection Design: Sven Ortel
Hair and Wig Design: Cookie Jordan
Fight Directors: Rick Sordelet and Christian Kelly-Sordelet
Production Stage Manager: Jennifer Rae Moore
Running Time: 2 hours and 30 minutes with one intermission
The Public Theater (Anspacher Theater), 425 Lafayette Street (at Astor Place)
Tickets: From $60; (212) 967-7555, www.publictheater.org, or in person at the theater
From 11/1/2016; opened 11/16/2016; closing 12/11/2016
Performance times: Shows take place Tuesdays–Sundays, times vary; check www.publictheater.org for the full performance schedule. Post-show talkbacks with the creative team are scheduled to take place immediately following every performance starting Wednesday, November 16. Post-show Speaker Series will be held on Sunday, November 20 after the matinee and Sunday, December 4.
Reviewed by Jacob Horn based on 11/12/2016 performance
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