‘Party People’

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Review by The People’s Minister of Information JR

In the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, the Black Panther Party and the group of revolutionary Puerto Ricans known as the Young Lords totally transformed the psychology of people in the United States with their survival programs, their muti-layered platforms, their fight for human rights against capitalism and imperialism, and their armed self-defense against the police.

In “Party People” at the Berkeley Rep, Christopher Livingston plays the Panther cub, Malik. – Photo: KevinBerne.com
In “Party People” at the Berkeley Rep, Christopher Livingston plays the Panther cub, Malik. – Photo: KevinBerne.com

On Oct. 24, “Party People,” a play developed and directed by Liesl Tommy, premiered in the Bay Area at the Berkeley Repertory Theater to a sold out audience that included a number of notable members of the Black Panther Party, including Black Panther Minister of Culture Emory Douglas, Minister of Education Ericka Huggins, former political prisoner Marshall Eddie Conway, the first female Panther, Tarika Lewis, Philly Panther Bobby McCall, Panther historian Billy X, Panther martial arts teacher Steve “Chop” McClutchen, comrade and friend of Bobby Hutton Terry Cotton and other revolutionaries who made history over 40 years ago.

The story line of “Party People” is based around a film project that Malik, the cub (son) of a Black Panther political prisoner, and his friend, Jimmy, the nephew of a Young Lord, are putting together to tell the history of that noble period of struggle, utilizing interviews with veterans of the two revolutionary organizations. In the process of planning the interviews for their documentary, they throw a party that brings a number of Panthers and Lords together to celebrate and to discuss the glorious history of the era.

Although the party is something of a celebration at first, the “party people” are all also forced to examine the demons that were left when their parties and their movement dissipated because of the FBI’s counterintelligence program, which included the mass influx of drugs into the organizations as well as into Black and Brown communities generally to suffocate the revolutionary spirit of self-determination that had intoxicated masses of people at the time.

This government plot also led to a civil war within each of the groups, with dedicated members fighting and killing one another. What started out as a festive event ends in disaster.

On Oct. 24, “Party People,” a play developed and directed by Liesl Tommy, premiered in the Bay Area at the Berkeley Repertory Theater to a sold out audience that included a number of notable members of the Black Panther Party.

I thought that the first half of the play left a lot to be desired. There was enough singing and choreographed steps to make someone ignorant of the topic think that the Panthers and Lords were Black and Brown political fraternities or sororities competing in a step competition, while yelling out political slogans occasionally.

Black Panthers Mrs. and Mr. Terry Cotton, close friends of Bobby Hutton, the first Panther to be assassinated, Melvin Dickson of The Commemorator and the first female member, Tarika Lewis, along with JR Valrey, enjoyed the Bay Area premiere of the play “Party People” in Berkeley on Oct. 24. – Photo: Block Report
Black Panthers Mrs. and Mr. Terry Cotton, close friends of Bobby Hutton, the first Panther to be assassinated, Melvin Dickson of The Commemorator and the first female member, Tarika Lewis, along with JR Valrey, enjoyed the Bay Area premiere of the play “Party People” in Berkeley on Oct. 24. – Photo: Block Report

The second half of the play, however, struck at the heart of many less glorious, undiscussed matters that veterans of the ‘60s and their families still deal with. “You think you was born into being a Panther?” was a question that the actor playing a Black Panther asked the Panther cub. And it is also a real question that members of the Black Panther Party have asked their own offspring who have wanted recognition for taking up the torch but haven’t contributed anything significant to today’s struggle.

A young actress playing the niece of a Young Lord told her aunt, “My parents sacrificed everything for the revolution, including me, and failed,” expressing a real disconnect that I have witnessed between a number of veterans and the youth in their families. How do you answer a child who deserved to be raised, yet whose parents were off fighting for a “better world” instead of spending time with their children?

“There have to be consequences for all acts of oppression,” one of my favorite lines in the play, came out of the mouth of a female Panther. It made me instantly think of Lovelle Mixon, who killed four police in East Oakland on March 21, 2009, approximately two and a half months after the police murdered Oscar Grant on tape. It also reminded me of the young people in Ferguson who are on the front line of the fight for human rights against police terror today.

One of the Young Lords tells his nephew, “If you don’t commit yourself to struggle, you are nothing,” which I thought was a very strong, blunt and real statement to this generation of young people – who are extremely materialistic, ignorant of their people’s history of struggle in this country and around the world. That they are babies of the riches of the cocaine era may be making them more self-centered and better suited for a capitalist psychology than past generations. How would our sacrifices look in comparison to those of our ancestors?

“There have to be consequences for all acts of oppression,” one of my favorite lines in the play, came out of the mouth of a female Panther.

Some of the dialog in the second half of the play was exceptional, but the main downfall of the play was that it did not make an effort to show any of the dynamic survival programs of the Panthers or the Lords, while it did show revolutionaries abusing one another. The programs were mentioned, but the play spotlighted the topics that the mainstream usually focuses on and ignored what the mainstream ignores.

Black Panther veteran and, after 44 years, recently released political prisoner Marshall Eddie Conway stands between fellow freedom fighters Melvin Dickson and JR Valrey at the Berkeley Rep, where they attended the Bay Area premiere of “Party People.” – Photo: Carole Hyams-Howard
Black Panther veteran and, after 44 years, recently released political prisoner Marshall Eddie Conway stands between fellow freedom fighters Melvin Dickson and JR Valrey at the Berkeley Rep, where they attended the Bay Area premiere of “Party People.” – Photo: Carole Hyams-Howard

I’m currently questioning whether this is done to make liberal white people, who fill up the seats of most theaters, feel comfortable? Is this the perspective of the Lords and the Panthers that they have become accustomed to, although they say that they were and are in solidarity with us?

Panther giants who were assassinated or passed on were mentioned, like Doc Satchel, Jonathan Jackson, George Jackson, Fred Hampton and Huey Newton, but what they did for the people was left out. Huey shooting the police, then getting shot, tortured and finally arrested was mentioned, but more should have been done to explain why that is just a minute part of his contributions.

The campaigns that these courageous comrades successfully worked on were left out. These visionaries are legends in the movement because of their actions, and to leave that out reduces them to the size of a corporate-made celebrity.

Last but not least, I think more should have been mentioned before the play ended about the political prisoners of war from this era, who still are fighting to get out of the U.S. concentration camps, some after almost half a century in jail – people like Chip, Yogi, Ruchell, Mumia, Peltier, Mutulu, Veronza, Imam Jamil, Herman, Jalil, Maroon, Oscar, Sekou, Mondo, Ed, Albert and more. We cannot turn the page on this history until we free our veterans.

I give the play a C. When I asked Panther Emory Douglas what he thought of the play at the intermission, after giving my opinion, he said, “This is entertainment, not a documentary,” and he’s right. I think “Party People” is a great way to introduce people to the history of the Young Lords and the Black Panthers, as long as the lesson doesn’t stop there.

The People’s Minister of Information JR Valrey is associate editor of the Bay View, author of “Block Reportin’” and “Unfinished Business: Block Reportin’ 2” and filmmaker of “Operation Small Axe” and “Block Reportin’ 101,” available, along with many more interviews, at www.blockreportradio.com. He can be reached at blockreportradio@gmail.com.

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