UNIVERSES and the inspiration for Party People
UNIVERSES is a national and international theatre ensemble who create dynamic, adventurous work. They incorporate lots of music—from hip hop to blues and everything in between, and embrace spoken word, politics, video, and more. They’ve made a name for themselves making plays that break traditional molds, and establishing a truly original voice that speaks its mind with a bold vision.
Below are excerpts from conversations featuring the three members of UNIVERSES responsible for creating Party People: Steven Sapp, Mildred Ruiz-Sapp, and William Ruiz, aka Ninja, as well as their director, Liesl Tommy.
The Black Panther and Young Lord connection
Steven Sapp: We’re direct recipients of the programs established by the Black Panthers and the Young Lords. For us, it’s more than just a moment in history. It’s a part of our lives and how we grew up. So it was a natural thing for us to want to focus on. We also wanted to show that it is a major moment in American history. Some people don’t consider it that, but we do.
Ninja: The Black Panthers and the Young Lords started breakfast programs for students before they went to school—those programs are still running today. A lot of people see the guns and the black jackets and they think that’s what it was about, but really it was about making sure that the people in the community who were left behind were no longer left behind. And we could not depend on the government to make sure that we were not left behind, we had to depend on ourselves to do it.
Mildred Ruiz-Sapp: Some things that they fought for, and were arrested and killed for, are now government policy. Things that today you see as normal rights and access—they’re the ones who fought for them. And that’s why it’s so important.
It was an international voice. They’re not just this local group that affected these little tiny communities; their voices became national and international. And it was about social change and fighting for the rights of people. And if that meant sometimes being armed, because our constitution said that we could be armed, it also meant upholding the laws of the United States and making sure that the United States understood its own laws. And if it made the argument for some people to bear arms, it also had to make the argument for everyone to bear arms. And I think that people don’t understand that.
Inspiration for Party People
Steven: We were looking at some footage of some Panthers and Young Lords’ celebrations and reunions—they do them every year. You could see that different people had very different looks on their faces. A lot of them hadn’t been around each other in a while—maybe the last conversation they had with someone wasn’t the most pleasant. There were suspicions of who was an agent and who wasn’t. And all of a sudden they’re thrust back into a room together to be Black Panthers and Young Lords. Some things haven’t been dealt with. Some people don’t get along. So we were looking at that thinking, that’s interesting.
If you didn’t know that they were from particular political groups, you would think that it was someone’s family reunion—the way they interact with each other with all the good, bad, and ugly of family reunions—there are pictures, their kids know each other. When we saw that, we knew that’s where our story was. Can we start at a reunion and try to bring some people back in the room? What does that bring up? Where do we go? What do they remember? What do they reveal? What did someone think about somebody 30 years ago that gets revealed now?
For instance, we heard a story that Kathleen Cleaver, who was a Black Panther, was in Algiers and got a letter saying: if you come back here to the United States, you will be killed. That was basically the gist of the letter. She thought it was from this guy Big Man Howard, who was also a Black Panther. She took it seriously and did not return for a long time. She saw Big Man after 30 years at a Black Panther event, walked up to him and said, “I just have to ask you: it’s been years, but did you send me that letter?” And he said, “What letter? I didn’t send you no letter!” And she was onstage and she said, “Do you know how that makes me feel? For 30 years I held this.” They’d never connected to have that conversation.
So that is the kind of story that we’re looking at. It’s not just the romanticized version: black-and-white pictures, shotguns. It’s really about that type of connection.
The interview process
Mildred: The New England Foundation for the Arts and the Oregon Shakespeare Festival were instrumental in helping us get across the country so that we could conduct a lot of interviews with Black Panther members and Young Lords members, as well as the children of the Black Panthers and the Young Lords, and local community members who were impacted by them or have an opinion one way or another.
Ninja: Going around to each of these states and cities, we got to meet the players and understand what were the problems in each of those places. You know, America’s wide, and the problems in the east side of the United States are not necessarily the same problems going on in the west side, or the south. So each chapter—they were called chapters—had different struggles to face. That’s what we’re finding out in the interviews, as we go to each state, and ask, “Why were you fighting? We know you were a Black Panther, but what were you fighting for? You were a Young Lord, what were you fighting for? And you were a Young Lord, were you fighting for the same thing?”
And then we’re hearing about the abuse that they received for simply doing their jobs. They were very heavily guarded by the police. Any time anybody got out of line or anybody got close to getting out of line, the police were there to say, “Oh, that guy has crossed the line, we’ve got to take him out.” And they did.
Steven: There is—especially in the communities we come from and the revolutionary and activist circle—a level of blessing you have to get in order to move forward. You’re supposed to give your elders a certain amount of respect. So for us, you could read 20 books about the Black Panthers and get some articles about the Young Lords and see everything on YouTube, and you could write a play—but that is very disrespectful. You have to talk to them. And it can be very intimidating. But they really respect the fact that you come to them, face to face, to really hear where they’re coming from. Now, will we use everything they said? No, not necessarily. But that level of respect, I think, has allowed us to have access to them in a real genuine way.
Liesl Tommy: I think one of the most moving things about the process so far has been the content of the interviews. The Black Panthers and the Puerto Rican Young Lords have been incredibly generous. They’ve opened their hearts and their intellects and their history to us, and they’ve shared things that were surprising and moving and revolutionary and still so relevant today. You really get the feeling that these were great minds, and we’re so fortunate that they shared their stories with us. I think the challenge and the burden is to honor their stories, to make a really wonderful piece of theatre that affects the audience the way that we were affected when people shared their experiences. You want to respect as well as honor memories of people living and who have passed. So that’s something we have to think about and then, at the same time, kind of lay aside so that we can venture bravely forth.
Mildred: Another thing you have to understand is that their history hasn’t been recorded properly. Growing up, we’re told that they were a racist organization or a nationalist group.
Ninja: I think the word terrorist has been thrown around too.
Mildred: They were painted to be these horrible, horrible people, you know? If you were to look at the uprisings in Berkeley, for instance, you don’t look at those as horrible students who were trying to disrupt the nature of education. You say they were speaking out, they wanted their voices to be heard. But when you have a Black Panther doing the same thing at the same exact time period, they were disrupters of American civilization.
Bringing Party People to the stage
Liesl: The subject matter, for me, is extremely relevant and also personally exciting. I’m originally from South Africa and I grew up during Apartheid, and there were many activists in my life as a child, and so the themes on this topic are very resonant for me, then and now.
UNIVERSES is an incredible theatre company—they are gifted musicians, singers, and dancers; and they use jazz, blues, hip hop, and movement in their performances. They take these interviews and the parts of the history that speak to them, and create a performance piece out of it. Part of my job as a director is to continue to ask questions, to push them to find their truth as well as the story’s truth. Because as artists that’s what we have to do: we have to always, always look to make sure that we’re finding all the truth in ourselves and in the material.
Steven: We have our own slant and take on it. It’s in our style—it’s in UNIVERSES style, which is music and poetry and dance. But it’s also a play. It feels like a 21st-century look at musical theatre. We understand what the rules of theatre are, but we also understand for ourselves how to shake that up.
Compiled from interviews conducted by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Used with permission.