Berkeley Rep’s production of ‘Party People’ is electrifying

At Berkeley Rep, Jesse J. Perez (Tito, center), performs in Party People, a high-wattage fusion of story and song that unlocks the legacy of the Black Panthers and Young Lords. Photo courtesy of kevinberne.com
At Berkeley Rep, Jesse J. Perez (Tito) performs in Party People, a high-wattage fusion of story and song that unlocks the legacy of the Black Panthers and Young Lords. Photo: kevinberne.com

You’re in for an exhilarating evening at Berkeley Rep’s production of Party People, a super- energetic theatrical experience recounting the 1960s-1970s Black Panther Party and Chicago’s Young Lords, a civil rights organization for Puerto Ricans and Latinos.

Creators UNIVERSES (Steven Sapp, Mildred Ruiz Sapp and William Ruiz, a.k.a. Ninja) have developed an organized chaos of poetry, monologue and dialogue, with hip-hop, blues, and salsa songs and dance, all of which artfully come together to explore the heart, soul and politics of these two transformative, though now historical, American revolutionary movements.The Black Panthers started in Oakland in 1966 as armed citizens’ patrols to monitor police behavior and challenge police brutality. In 1969, the Panthers started a series of local social programs including the Free Breakfast for Children Programs.

In retaliation for the perceived threat of the gun-bearing Panthers, F.B.I. Director Hoover began COINTELPRO, a program of surveillance, infiltration, police harassment, assassination, and other illegal tactics used to undermine Panther leadership, incriminate party members and criminalize the Party. Yet, by 1970, Black Panther Party membership numbered in the thousands, with offices in 68 cities. Later, infighting, violence, illegal and criminal activities, killings of police officers, prison sentences, exile and changing times led to the collapse of the Party.

The Young Lords began as a Puerto Rican gang in the Chicago neighborhood of Lincoln Park during the 1960s. In 1968, urban renewal was evicting families from their homes and police abuses were reaching new heights. Under the leadership of José Cha-Cha Jiménez, the Young Lords reorganized into a civil and human rights movement. Puerto Rican self-determination and the displacement of Puerto Rican, Latinos and other poor residents of prime real estate areas for profit became the primary focus. They spread to other cities nationwide.


(l to r) Christopher Livingston (Malik), Steven Sapp (Omar), and Reggie D. White (Solias) perform in UNIVERSES’ Party People, a high-wattage fusion of story and song that unlocks the legacy of the Black Panthers and Young Lords at Berkeley Rep. Photo courtesy of kevinberne.com
Christopher Livingston (Malik), Steven Sapp (Omar), and Reggie D. White (Solias) (l to r) perform in UNIVERSES’ Party People, at Berkeley Rep. Photo: kevinberne.com

The Young Lords were also victims of Hoover’s COINTELPRO. José Cha-Cha Jiménez went underground for over two years and was in and out of jail. In 1982, the Young Lords organized a major event for the successful campaign of Chicago’s first African-American mayor, Harold Washington.

Party People’s premise is that two children of these movements, Malik (excellent Christopher Livingston, The White Snake), whose Black Panther father is still in prison, and Jimmy (multi-talented co-creator William Ruiz), whose uncle was a Young Lord, organize a present-day reunion of former members. They are attempting to understand, among other things, what motivated their parents to place their revolutionary causes above their children. One young Latina laments that her mother allowed her to be raised by a relative so that she could feed other children breakfast.

Through the device of the reunion, we meet former Panther and Young Lords members and gain insight into their revolutionary years, and how those experiences changed their lives. In fact, the play is based on interviews that the creators conducted with actual former members of both groups. We meet former revolutionaries of every stripe. For example, Solias (soulful Reggie D. White) informed on the Panthers to the F.B.I. to avoid unrelated criminal charges, with catastrophic personal results. Blue (first-rate J. Bernard Calloway) a former Black Panther, served 25 years in prison for shooting a police officer before the prosecutor’s evidence was finally thrown out on appeal.

Poignantly, Party People mourns many of the movements’ dead at the hands of the police and the F.B.I, especially Fred Hampton, who though unarmed, was shot through his front door over 80 times by Chicago police. But the widow of a police officer who was shot by Panther members, for which Blue stood trial, speaks eloquently about the loss of her husband. In addition to the generational conflicts, Party People also explores the rampant sexism and machismo of the men of the movements.

Under the direction of Liesl Tommy, the evening’s insistent and infectious music, including the hip-hop (of which I confess, I am not a fan), the choreography, scenic and lighting design, camera projection and general stage craft are all original and all first rate. The talented actors make the topnotch writing come alive. Party People has outstanding visceral, emotional and intellectual impact. That’s very rare in one piece of theater.

Party People is playing at Berkeley Rep through Nov. 23. Check for information and tickets, at Berkeley Rep online.

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