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Party People

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - November 15, 2016

Christopher Livingston and William Ruiz
with the cast
Photo by Joan Marcus

It takes way, way too long, but Party People, the combination play and in-your-face musical art installation that just opened at The Public Theater, eventually comes to ask a fascinating question: What responsibility, if any, do different generations of revolutionaries have to each other? It centers on two nationalist groups, the Black Panthers (for African Americans) and the Young Lords (for Puerto Ricans), that formed in the late 1960s, and ponders what might happen if their remaining members were to meet today's young people with the same general aims but a radically revamped toolkit. And for as long as it focuses on that most intently, it manages to be an engaging, enlightening evening.

Unfortunately, this only lasts for a tiny chunk of the last half of the second act, which, given that the show as a whole runs more than two and a half hours, is not enough. Developed and directed by Liesl Tommy, crafted by the company Universes, and composed by Universes and Broken Chord, Party People tries to bring, well, a decade-hopping party atmosphere to the topic of street rebellion, and give the underserved urban masses their voice with music wrenched directly from their vernacular. What emerges instead is something of a mess, with so much on its mind that it ends up not saying much of anything at all.

To begin with, it presupposes some knowledge of (and, most likely, affinity for) the Black Panthers and the Young Lords, as you must accept their motives and methods before you can get past even the first scene. That's when Malik (Christopher Livingston), a twentysomething son of a Panther, stands before the lens of a video camera to testify of his pain and his plan. After tossing off a few, ahem, colorful epithets and explaining his (apparently AP-level) education in them, he says, "The boogie man's here to put America on notice. I watched how those brothers and sisters carried themselves; studied Mao, Che, and Frantz Fanon, so I'd have my mind right. I wanted to walk in those black shoes, and wear that black jacket, with that black beret on my head, with that black crown on my head... but heavy is the head that wears the crown. Heavy is the head that wants to wear the crown. And I have earned my position, sat on the sideline and waited to be called into the game. I'm ready coach, put me in!"

We soon learn that the video is intended to be part of a project Malik has created with his friend Jimmy (William Ruiz), the nephew to a former Young Lord. Also involved are the original members of the groups, whom the two have been interviewing, and who are planning to appear for the first time in decades at the premiere that night. And as Malik (stage name "MK Ultra") and Jimmy ("Primo") further pursue their art, they become enveloped in the spirit of their subjects, and weave their own fantasies about that era into their work until it's no longer always possible to determine which events are unfolding in the past and which in the present.

Their first trip (so to speak) results in a thrillingly martial, multipart stage-filler in which we delve into the minds and hearts of those who made the choice to rise up; this consumes a stunning swath of the early part of Act I, and only grows more electrifying as good intentions turn bad and faith morphs into firearms. The constantly developing, percussive sound of the music, combined with the precisely drilled, angry-angular choreography of Millicent Johnnie, keeps things elevated, but doesn't manage to do so for long. Well before the end of the first act, and well into the second, the score has degraded into a familiar, bored-and-boring collection of rap, hip-hop, and funk-hugging tropes that don't inspire or even move musically; they drone as much as those in Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812, just in different ways. Visually, they're no better, with the same movements similarly repeated, ad infinitum and ad nauseam, as though no one involved has anything new to say past the first 15 seconds or so.

As tied to the story, that's not exactly true: We see the struggles from the younger folks as the earlier groups try to assert themselves despite being well past their prime. Malik fights against the ghost of his imprisoned father. Jimmy longs for the approval of his uncle, Tito (Jesse J. Perez), who doesn't recognize his nephew's message as one that's worth sacrificing his own activism to participate in. Helita (Mildred Ruiz-Sapp) is forever at odds with Clara (Gizel Jiménez), the young girl she raised after the death of her Young Lords parents, but it's not a life she wants for herself. Others, such as incarcerated-but-exonerated blue (Oberon K.A. Adjepong) and Omar (Steven Sapp), who was falsely branded an informant, are fighting off their own demons between then and now.

The texture of it all is compelling, and Tommy has infused the proceedings with a start-to-finish urgency that is flawlessly reflected in the harsh downtown scaffolding set and incisive lighting (both by Marcus Doshi), the patchwork Everyman-army costumes (Meg Neville), and particularly the projections (Sven Ortel) that propel you into the flashpoint of the three colliding worlds (their side, our side, the artistic truth in between) that Party People chronicles. None of it, though, makes following the myriad plot threads any easier; there are just too many for any of them to receive the necessary amount of development time, especially given the raft of musical numbers applied on top. It left me longing for a no-nonsense non-musical version, where nothing could get in the way of the raw feelings and interactions that, as rendered here, are deeply overcooked.

It also does not help that only a few of the performers, who are all skilled, are charismatic enough to jolt you into the realm of caring. Ruiz's magnetic flamboyance does the trick, as does the dry comedic touch and icy core that Ramona Keller brings to Blue's wife, Amira. And Adjepong and Robynn Rodriguez soar as much as they can in a tense scene at the end of the first act, when Blue is confronted by a widow who's positive he killed her husband. Even there, though, it's just paying lip service to competing visions of memory—the grieving wife still comes across as the bad guy.

Infinitely more invigorating is the final-scene confrontation between Malik and Jimmy and their forebears, arguing whether change can truly come via YouTube and Photoshop, or if it still must be purchased with the business end of a knife or gun. Listening to them defend their own definitions of freedom and oppression to others who speak a completely different social language drives home the message that the fight for recognition and equality never stops, even if it changes forms. That's far more musical, moving, and inspiring than Party People's more mainstream—and half-hearted—attempts to convince us that there's not much difference between the battles of yesterday and those roiling outside our own doors in 2016.

Party People
Through December 11
Anspacher Theater at The Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule:

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