Review: ‘Party People,’ a Nostalgic Look at 1960s Radicalism

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Photo

Mildred Ruiz-Sapp, center, in “Party People” at the Public Theater.

Credit
Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

There were shouts and moans and finger snaps at a weekend performance of “Party People” at the Public Theater. Tears and laughter joined together; so did sympathy and rage. Commissioned by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival for its “American Revolutions” cycle, developed by the director Liesl Tommy and written by the spoken-word collective Universes, this semidocumentary work is a disjointed exploration of two 1960s radical groups, the Black Panther Party and the Young Lords Party. In the current political climate, it may be the most frightening and exciting piece of theater now up.

“Party People” begins as a young African-American man in a beret, Malik (Christopher Livingston), who also uses the name Mk Ultra, bluffs a tough speech for a camera. He’s a contemporary artist, riffing on the macho bravado of the Panthers, an organization to which his father, now serving a life sentence, once belonged.

Malik and his Latino friend Jimmy (William Ruiz, a.k.a Ninja), whose alter ego is a clown provocateur named Primo, have conducted numerous interviews with former party members and spliced them into a video. Those members will soon gather at a gallery to watch it.

Once the former revolutionaries assemble, the evening segues into reminiscences interspersed with musical numbers (hip-hop, jazz, Latin, soul) and occasional goading from Primo, who sports an acid-house court jester ensemble. There are tributes and apologies, rants and infighting, and a mildly bizarre self-reflexive section in which a character sits down next to a spectator and says: “I don’t know how I feel about anything I saw tonight. I liked some of it, I hated some of it.”

“Party People,” written by the spouses Steven Sapp and Mildred Ruiz-Sapp and by Mr. Ruiz (Ms. Ruiz-Sapp’s brother), derives its language, vibrant and volatile, from actual interviews. Yet the storytelling is less than cohesive. Like most parties — political or festive — this piece has a slow beginning, a terrific middle and an ambiguous ending. Conflicting impulses shift “Party People” toward drama at some moments, toward history lesson at others, toward agitprop occasionally. It is too long, too unfocused and perhaps too democratic, with nearly every character receiving his or her spoken-word aria.

Yet in a room full of people distraught and enraged by the election of Donald J. Trump to the presidency, “Party People” felt heartbreakingly timely and intensely necessary. Many in the audience had visceral responses to the piece, which asked them to confront a 20th-century history of civil disobedience and to then contemplate what resistance they might offer in the 21st.

Seen one way, the two parties here failed. The work of the Panthers did not end police brutality or obviate the need for Black Lives Matter; the efforts of the Young Lords did not give Puerto Rico self-determination. The collectives disbanded. Berets went out of style.

But viewed another way, these groups demonstrated that small bands of citizens — using a variety of methods, some troubling — could have a striking impact on politics and culture. They could get garbage collected and children fed and sick people treated. They could make young men and women feel pride and power in their ethnicity and inheritance, achievements Malik and Jimmy admire.

“They were working so hard at such a young age, makes me feel so inadequate,” Jimmy says.

“Makes me wonder what I would be doing if I were alive back then,” Malik says.

Or what he might do now.

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