Review: Party People at Oregon Shakespeare Festival, 2012

Interesting and ironic that Evan Wilson of the new Rogue Valley Messenger should give me a ticket and ask me to write a review. I sat with a young friend of his, who seemed entertained but confused with the actions on stage. He loved the music, which was compelling and the female Latina vocalists were excellent, though I did wish for a libretto or a copy of the lyrics.

 

The premise of the story centers around two young filmmakers who create a theatre piece through orchestrating the reunion of older friends, acquaintances and family members who led, forty years prior, the militant actions of the Black Panther Party for black power and the Young Lords, for fair treatment of Puerto Ricans in America, mainly in Chicago and New York. Unlike my fellow play-goer, I had lots of context for the history lessons that surface as the cast of characters relive their triumphs, miseries and betrayals; in 1968 I attended a junior college in Oakland, then moved to Puerto Rico and live there and in Manhattan in the early 1970s. In those communities in those times, it would have been impossible not to be aware of the intense shift in society where minds were being changed and blown simultaneously! Shift Happens!

 
The play is like a rock opera, or in this case a Rap Opera, with much of the story being told through song and exciting, provocative dance numbers. The technical aspects include strong use of black and white video footage projected onto the back wall as huge repeat images of the actors. A fully lit cabaret sign in bold capital letters spells out REVOLUTION above a set of stadium seating risers which are well-used in creating street dance and prison scenes.

 
The “producers” of this show within a show are Malik, whose estranged father was a Black Panther, and Jimmy, a second generation Hispanic who’s managed to overcome language barriers and poverty to attend college and study drama. These two young men provide the vehicle for both the audience and themselves to become “schooled” on what their aging guests’ “Revolution” was all about. These bright young men, who grew up in the computer and information age, contrast profoundly with flashback actions as the cast of guests reproduces the drama, issues and reactions, complications and intimacies of the past. We are reminded of Andy Warhol’s genius prediction that in the future “everyone will want their fifteen minutes of fame,” as the Revolution, egos and struggles are re-enacted.

 
Long-buried rivalries and heart-felt reminiscences allow us to see how times have changed, what resulted from the Civil Rights Acts of the 1960s and the strivings for rights and social justice by minorities in the late 60s and 70s. The play opens with and continues to pump up and out messages that are downright contemporary:

 
The opening musical number “Wound Up, No Job, America” could be right now, and the slogans of “Hey, Hey L.B.J. (then U.S. President Lyndon Baines Johnson) and references to the fear spreading across America with the kidnapping of Patty Hearst, get-out-of-Vietnam Protests, black power, helter skelter, riots on Telegraph Ave in Berkeley and the sobering event of student shootings at Kent State when the “pigs” got more out of control than anyone, may remind us just a bit of the past. Yet, what has been lost and gained in the interim 40 years? In the seriousness, the certainty, the appeal for justice during the late 1960s and 1970s, much was achieved and some things (like innocence, lack of cynicism and sense of place, security or order) were lost as well. Also we are reminded how so many are presently confined in “the belly of the beast” as America’s prison population exceeds that of any other democracy.

 
There is something cynical about this play within a play, or perhaps that is simply my reflection on the past as seen through my own lens, having lived through it. The extreme craziness of that time must present a a challenging task for the current generation of early adults to make any sense of or make any art from. It reminds me how little history of the 20th Century has been taught in our schools, and renews my commitment to provide curriculum and materials directed to that deficit.

 
“Time Keeps On Slipping……into the Future” is one of the play’s songs used as a successful repeating motif and metaphor, as the Oldsters’ memories blur, egos self-aggrandize and exaggerate, their approaching senility, regrets and doubts rewrite histories, chronologically, factually and personally. At times I longed for a more poignant and heroic treatment to the content – a Howard Zinn “The People Speak” approach – but I must confess that the staging and interpretation as presented was most effective, cryptic, violent, uncertain and wholly fitting in its re-creation of feelings, images and motivations of what went on in the 60s and 70s.

 
Fact is the play is very raw, and the language is as harsh and dark as the injustices and zeitgeist portrayed. “Panther Talk/Agent Talk” is contrasted – with more hate and rage and intent to kill coming from the Establishment’s agencies than the counterculture revolutionaries. The personal suspicions and private affairs of key characters give voice to frustrations, betrayals and volatile barely submerged tensions focused on gender issues. Music/dance pieces “Pussy Killed the Party” and “Here Come the Drugs”) give us a glimpse into the cracks opening up in the societal structure and how all times are rift with drama, war, oppression, deceit, and injustice that must be fought with whatever tools are at hand.

 
Thus we begin to understand the view of the young producers, who see that everything their forefathers and mothers fought for was necessary. Then they tell how and why a new and different kind revolution is brewing within their generation; through amazing powers of belief, love and understand and tools like social networking, information and imagery – the power of collective conscience, independent media, optimism, humor, the breaking down of borders, and the powerful vision, voice and virility of youth they shall overcome.

 
The closing number does a magnificent job of summing up for all ages the key struggle for humans and all sentient beings to co-exist and equitably share resources and maintain a just society. “Give me Justice, Give Me Peace – Life, Home, Land, Bread” they sang in heartfelt unison. The poetry, strength and enduring value of this play has a Shakespearean quality, its bawdiness, truth and the longevity of the universal issues addressed. Taking some of what is played on stage to the streets of Ashland, where other dramas such as Legalize Sleep, and the rights of all citizens to the aforementioned bread and housing would be highly advisable for the present day Establishment. I applaud the energy of youth to reinvent and level the playing field for all actors in this world stage we live in and hope viewers will leave this play with renewed energy to work for the peace, fairness and justice now.

Catie Faryl
July 15, 2012