Prologue: from the Artistic Director
What is your image of the Black Panthers? Do you remember the Young Lords? How do these groups live in your mind, in our collective memory, in that immense collection of conflicting narratives that we call the annals of history? Do you remember their accomplishments or their failures? The fervent idealism that fueled the beginning of the movement, or the bitter cynicism in the aftermath of its tragic end? After all is said and done, what do you think is the legacy of the Black Panthers and the Young Lords?
These are the central questions and motivating forces behind Party People, a project that took years to research. Led by UNIVERSES, a trio of artists in fierce pursuit of personal and historical truth, countless interviews were conducted with scores of people affiliated with both groups. Being much younger than the people they were interviewing, UNIVERSES found themselves alternately amazed and surprised, elated and depressed. Many old wounds had not healed, some old rivalries remained intact, and memories were frequently fractured and painful. And yet, the breadth of vision was still inspiring, the goals worthy, and the accomplishments real. How to capture all that?
Enlisting the long-term guidance of director Liesl Tommy, they focused on creating a fictional dramatic situation set in the present that evokes scenes from the past. Relying on their unique performance skills that combine spoken word with a variety of musical idioms ranging from blues to jazz to salsa, the result is a singular theatrical experience that transmutes history into art. And the journey of the characters reflects the journey of the artists themselves: a generation trying to mine the experiences of their forebears, trying to understand the past as a way of living more fully in the present.
Party People was first developed and produced by our good friends at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. We both admired that production and felt the play was ripe for a deeper investigation of both character and story. UNIVERSES were under no obligation to rewrite the play, but they have embraced the task with openness, rigor, and courage. Tonight you will see the results of these formidable efforts. Here in Berkeley, home of the Free Speech Movement and sister city to Oakland, where so much of the history of the Panthers was written. We hope that the play catalyzes your imagination, activates your spirit, and brokers some sense of solidarity as we all make our way into the uncertain future.