By Bob Shuman
The two young Black Panther wannabes, Malik (Christopher Livingston) and Jimmy (William Ruiz a.k.a. Ninja) in Party People, now playing at the Public Theatre through December 11, are “snowflakes,” the jargon used for those unprepared to deal with social or political realities. Obnoxious, unfunny, and immature, they might be in need of–especially after the outcome of the presidential election–therapy dogs, disaster counseling, Play-Doh, and coloring books (to borrow language from Fox news). Yet the black nationalist movement of the ‘60s, recruited from those younger than them—kids who were in their mid-teens.
Maybe the musical is commenting on the fact that all youth can be rather puerile or perhaps it is bluntly saying that they don’t make revolutionaries like in the day. Party People, however, developed and directed by Liesl Tommy, is probably the best idea for a musical, or drama, or opera that never happened–one that could take us into the ‘60s U.S., like audiences have been drawn into Peronist Argentina (Evita) or Nazi Germany (Cabaret), although, of all musicals, Party People seems most comparable to Sondheim’s Follies. Besides lacking a riveting, intriguing or sympathetic central character–like an Evita or Sally Bowles–Party People hasn’t been tightly plotted (in fact, no credit is given for a specific book writer, although nonspecific work is attributed to Steven Sapp, Mildred Ruiz-Sapp, and William Ruiz a.k.a. Ninja). The show wants to mainstream and celebrate the Black Panthers, but, no surprise, not all people deem the group worthy of accolades, nor do they accede that its evolution into the newer movement Black Lives Matter, is all that praiseworthy either.
Hillary Clinton lost the 2016 election after using the July Democratic convention to endorse BLM; Trump has proclaimed law and order and won—Party People comes at us on the wrong side of the historical moment and was probably counting on a more favorable political space to inhabit after rehearsals, even if it is playing in New York. It won’t get one based on its naïve attempt at revisionism, though. That’s part of the challenge—to make the evening less propagandistic. Audiences will have a hard time believing that the Black Panthers were not militants and that they did not arouse fear. It should be all right that the general public may not feel the same way about the Panthers as its creators do—but a partial reconciliation might have happened at Party People if more conflict from opposing points of view were expressed within the crucible of the performance space (the show does incorporate the opinions of the movement’s elders, and, at the end of Act I, the wife of a dead cop finds her way into a celebration for interviewees of a Black Party documentary).
The context and historical specifics for the show are fuzzy—although the audience is dismissively told to “Google that shit.” The creators have not been brave enough to undertake a tougher accounting of the times (where are the assassinations of Martin Luther King, which accelerated Black Panther membership, or Bobby Kennedy?). Like the diarist in Simon Stephens’s Heisenberg, who forgot to write about the ‘60s, the chaos, the passion, the blood of the era, including the riots, political outrage, and the Vietnam War, aren’t spilling in. Party People, with atmospheric music, including rap and acapella songs, by Universes with Broken Chord and the strong work of invested performers, is more centered on Huey Newton’s social concerns than Eldridge Cleaver’s call for armed insurgency. The musical has scrubbed the intimidating radicalism of the Panthers and not put us on the ground and into the streets where challenging Brechtian solutions could have informed and electrified the audience, especially since the Anspacher Theater is equipped with all forms of theatrical technology, including multiple video screens. Such design elements are underutilized here, and the show, which is wary of history, yet wants to rewrite it almost as a pseudo-documentary, could have included a more intricate video immersion. This would have let the audience see the era for themselves in real footage, words, and stills. Part of the intent of Party People is to underline the fact that the Black Panthers were normal, ordinary people trying to improve lives through community outreach—to many, as well as J. Edgar Hoover, however, they were dangerous, secular Socialists. Lorraine Hansberry—who wrote about police brutality in To Be Young Gifted and Black–Amiri Baraka, and Brecht aren’t around, of course—but instead of a continuation of the party line through agitprop theatre, Party People needs more specificity, more character work, more depth, and less self-approval.
Malik and Jimmy aren’t prepared to be unfollowed on Twitter, much less face a liberal loss in the election. They’re puff-piece propagandists, trying to revise and water down the history and legacy of black nationalism through social media hashtags and technology, scarily reinforcing reports of the dishonored and dishonest New York Times showcasing positive articles on Hillary Clinton and her candidacy, not negative ones. Facebook, additionally, was not checking for fake news during the 2016 election cycle. While propaganda might be impossible to separate from theater, or journalism, or media, general audiences may be more attracted to different elements in drama—like character, plot, deep human meaning and connections. That’s the sobering truth.
Press: Julie Danni, Laura Rigby, the Public Theater.
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Text (c) 2016 by Bob Shuman. All rights reserved.