Hurrying to the Berkeley Rep Theater rushing the Saturday after Thanksgiving across the street to the long line for Will Call to see an afternoon performance of PARTY PEOPLE, twice I found myself face to face with Tony Taccone, Artistic Director of the play. The Berkeley Rep during his tenure became the Tony Award winning non profit with a reputation as an international leader in innovative theatre, the brochure states. And I remembered the last experience of his work Tiny Kushner as well as Angels in America as being life altering experiences. WE get to see people in extreme positions of responding to their fate, their possibilities and the world around them that channels their responses from which they break free. And so it was with PARTY PEOPLE.
The stage set told us where we were and what we could expect with a big neon sign of
R E V O L U T I O N, and that’s what it was about the Black Panther Party and Young Lords during the height of the Civil Rights movement in this country. Immediately within minutes of the actors hitting the stage- and in the experience presented, we are there again,. The Civil Rights war then has a presence now as then as recently as Ferguson. We find in our living room on our cable TVs names like Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin and Oscar Grant, we hear “No Justice, NO peace.” We know there have been great measures, but we’re painfully aware of where the progress ended as we watch the actors give with their every move, every glance a knowledge of how it was then and how it is now to be black or latino- and excluded, disenfranchised and blamed for the conditions that predict their failure if unmet by change.
The black and latino young men- the Young Lords in formation on the stage bring back the headlines of the 60’s- fire and intensity with sit ins, demonstrations, occupying spaces to raise awareness of the need for the civil rights in law to become more in fact. In Chicago, In New York, San Francisco and in Oakland , these Young Lords disrupted life forming a civil rights organization that trained the Young Lords in activism and community service. Many of their works were of benefit to their communities with breakfast for children who didn’t have to go to school hungry, xray units in neighborhoods to screen for TB, day care for working parents, donations of food all were their works to the communities. But that is not what they are known for though that is what remains in the dynamic they created that is represented by those communities today.
William Ruiz played Jimmy and was one of the six actors who took the stage with an energy and commitment to convey the meaning of the Young Lords portraying each of the young men engaged in this period of history. “A lot of people see the guns and the black jackets and they think that’s what it was about, but really it was about making sure that the people in the community who were left behind were no longer left behind.”
Steven Sapp –co-creator of the production and another playing Omar, one of the Young Lords states “We’re the direct recipients of the programs established by the Black Panthers and the Young Lords. It’s part of our lives, and how we grew up.
Mildred Ruiz-Sapp, Co-creator who plays Helitan describes how the Party People became the international voice,not just a local group and tiny communities. Many of the Young Lords and Black Panthers in the just a number of years were killed or incarcerated, with the FBI hounding the leaders, the play alluding to the possibility that the drugs were the source of betrayal to the leaders of the Black Panther and Young Lords Party who were imprisoned, shot on street corners and in jails.
It is J. Bernard Calloway as Blue who seems to convey the betrayal that will follow his people; he conveys that he knows the destiny of the people, but continues with resolve to continue on fiercely. Amy Lizardo as Clara and Sophia Ramos as Maruca convey the essence of the role of the women in the party with sass and vinegar and a depth of feeling in the one line that got me: “And what it feels like to see in their eyes that they don’t see me,” in reference to the every day struggle to be of color, and particularly a woman of color.
The resounding standing ovation at the end of the “Party People” to each and every person on the stage who gave every measure to their performances was a relief and a luxury to expel given the full sense of grief and longing anyone would feel in witnessing this play.
Were I to meet Tony Taccone after the play, I would say: Thank you for bringing to light what any of us who were around during the 60’s and the social revolution witnessed and know somewhere in their hearts still know as the truth about our civil rights. The courage of the play, the courage of the performers in giving every millimeter of themselves to convey the truth, the pain, holding nothing back cannot be forgotten. That is the quality of work I associate with Tony Tacone, and the value of the theater today, tomorrow and forever.
Thank you, Liesl Tommy, the developer and director, I would say you brought it home. You gave us a piece of our history that has not and will not go away without change. Just as then, some will not know what is happening around us, disapprove of the methods and the means of those who challenge and push us forward as human beings. Your play allows anyone interested to know the messiness and the value of revolution.
PARTY PEOPLE by Universes developed and directed by Liest Tommy will continue at the Berkeley Rep with reviews that claim it is “flawed but riveting” and “the heart of the Revolution of the 1960’s.” For me, go see it because it’s about our times as well as those, because the play and actors convey with absolute depth the meaning those times as well as our own. It is excellent work excellently performed. Berkeley Rep Theater