When the Bronx-based ensemble Universes was approached by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival about writing a commissioned piece for its “American Revolutions: United States History Cycle,” the company wanted to shy away from one-sided, mythologizing tropes about American history.
So Universes chose to zoom in on two interconnected social uprisings: The rise and fall of the Black Panthers and the Puerto Rican rights group Young Lords in the 1960s and ’70s. The resulting show, Party People, directed by Liesl Tommy, is currently in the midst of a four-month run at OSF that continues through Nov. 3.
Those two revolutionary movements held a special place in the hearts of Universes members Steven Sapp, Mildred Ruiz-Sapp and William “Ninja” Ruiz. “When we thought about moments in American history that directly impacted us—that were relevant to the urban areas where we come from—we couldn’t help but think of the Black Panthers and the Young Lords,” Sapp says. “We were the kids that benefited from free breakfast programs, health-clinic services, clothing drives and other community programs started by those groups.”
As research, Universes spent time with former leaders of the two parties, including Bobby Seale and José “Cha-Cha” Jiménez. But in crafting the show, the company focused on the rank-and-file members who were at the heart of the movements, zeroing in on the aging activists. “There’s an incredible amount of love [between them],” Sapp says. “But then there’s an equal amount of disharmony that can bubble up to the surface.” The bitter resentments and soured relationships can often be traced to the suspicions and betrayals that mounted as the FBI infiltrated both groups with undercover agents.
The play also doesn’t shy away from the darker, violent histories of the movements. Audiences hear from the wife of a police officer killed by the Panthers and a member who was tortured by his cohorts on suspicion of being an FBI informant. Despite those troubling truths, Sapp says, “I think the legacy of average citizens sparking change—of people fighting the system—still exists today.”
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