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Party People
Photograph: Joan Marcus

Theater review: Party People stirs up a funky revolution at the Public

By David Cote
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Even the most righteous, rage-fueled revolution needs discipline, a division of labor so the marches proceed and the pamphlets get distributed. But—a firebrand might protest—what’s the point of throwing off the shackles if you replace social servitude with ideological oppression? This deep contradiction lies at the heart of Party People, a wildly ambitious and overstuffed homage to grassroots activism and in-fighting among the Black Panthers and the Young Lords, in which the ecstasy of revolt gives way to the hangover of disillusionment and betrayal.

Jointly conceived and written by the spoken-word theater troupe Universes—Steven Sapp, Mildred Ruiz-Sapp and William Ruiz (a.k.a. Ninja)—Party People is nothing if not kinesthetically engaged: The 12-strong ensemble executes long sequences with rigorous movement while chanting, shouting or singing. Just watching these actors will make you sweat.

The piece, directed by Liesl Tommy (Eclipsed) is a researched yet original blend of docu-musical, family comedy, live video and hip-hop, defiantly unstable and sprawling. The complex group portrait is framed as a multimedia docudrama installation put on by children of past activists: Malik (Christopher Livingston) and Jimmy (Ruiz). When the graying rabble-rousers show up for the reunion, full of fear, guilt or long-buried resentments, memories bubble up to the surface. (It’s like Follies with rapping and Black Power salutes.)

One of the most interesting plot threads (and there are many) involves an FBI double agent (Horace V. Rogers) who infiltrates the Panthers and orchestrates the torture of an innocent member (Steven Sapp). That story alone, more fully dramatized, could sustain an evening. As it is, Party People is a galvanizing education for the young (or ignorant) and a provocation to everyone to take sides. Like it or not, times are changing; sometimes the art has to wait.

Public Theater (Off Broadway). By Steven Sapp, Mildred Ruiz-Sapp and William Ruiz (a.k.a. Ninja). Directed by Liesl Tommy. With ensemble cast. Running time: 2hrs 45mins. One intermission. Through Dec 11. Click here for full ticket and venue information.

Follow David Cote on Twitter: @davidcote       

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