Early this fall I visited Oregon Shakespeare Festival, where I had the pleasure of immersing myself in that venerable company’s wide-ranging repertoire. Six plays were performing at the time, including three Shakespeares; an entertaining mash-up of Medea, Macbeth and Cinderella; and a new play based on LBJ’s 1964 election and the fight for civil rights for African Americans.
But for me, it was the sixth production that truly drove home the lesson that a theatre piece can branch out on multiple levels to touch not only the community where it’s playing but audiences near and far, even those who may not have actually seen the performance. “The play’s the thing,” all right, but the play may also be just the tip of the iceberg. The show I’m speaking of was Party People, a multimedia piece created by the New York–based ensemble Universes, which used music, spoken word and dance to reexamine a controversial episode in our cultural history—the rise and fall in the 1960s and ’70s of the Black Panthers and Young Lords. The show spotlights the activism of these two outlaw entities, both of which sponsored important social programs, such as before-school breakfast and health care, in their impoverished communities. Party People also uncovered some of the internal strife that existed as the movements were dismantled, in part through the infiltration of police and government informants.
In order to create the piece, commissioned by OSF as part of its American Revolutions history project, the Universes ensemble spent three year interviewing members of the Black Panthers and Young Lords. Immediately following the performance I attended, Steven Sapp, Mildred Ruiz and William “Ninja” Ruiz stayed on for a conversation with the audience. The room was packed with a multigenerational, racially diverse group representing a variety of political and social viewpoints. OSF is a “destination theatre,” so many of the attendees were visiting from other cities. Students from a San Francisco high school urged Universes to bring the piece to their school. As teens, they felt distanced from the historical moment of the play, but they also found its messages resonating with our times and their lives. One audience member expressed concern about the play’s suggestion that revolution is what’s needed in our society today—isn’t this, he queried, just a small step away from anarchy? There was a scholar present who asserted that the Universes artists, because of the depth and breadth of their research, are now the leading experts on the living history of the Panthers and Lords. (It’s inspiring to hear how artists can serve as experts and thought leaders on major topics of our times.)
Another young person raised his hand and asked, “If there was one thing you want us to take away from this show, what would it be?” The artists’ valuable answer: First, read—it’s important to read everything you can and stay informed about the world around you. Second, remember change is accomplished in the small things you do, right in your own neighborhood—picking up trash on a particular street, helping someone you know in need. As the post-show conversation drew to a close, about a third of the hands in the room were still waving, eager to take the floor evidence, for me, of the show’s emphatic ripple effect in the Ashland community and beyond.
I was driven the next day to the airport by the shuttle company owner—a grandmother—who told me what she was learning about the plays at OSF, and about the world at large, just by doing airport runs. Among her recent passengers, remarkably, were aging members of the Black Panthers and Young Lords who had flown to Ashland to see the play. The driver’s experience was enriched by the direct conversations she had with them about their lives and their reactions to the work onstage.
While the historical period addressed in Party People is 1967 and beyond, All the Way by Robert Schenkkan deals with the 1964 election of Lyndon B. Johnson and the complicated politics around race at that time. And so another ripple took shape in the interaction between the plays themselves, as they generated reflections among spectators about a complex time in our sociopolitical history.
Now we’re in another time of change—one in which we need to recognize the potential our theatres have to affect the world around them, through the work itself and through the currents that theatres, artists and plays can send through
a community and far beyond. In this issue of American Theatre you’ll find coverage
of Theatre Facts 2011 highlighting the fiscal strengths and weaknesses that currently characterize the field. Once again, subscription numbers have caught the attention of some members of the media, and Jonathan Mandell’s article (“Subscribe to This!,” page 30) reveals the latest thinking on ticketing practices from the overwhelming fatigue that is felt by some because of the perennial focus on subscriptions, to the pressing need, voiced by TCG managing director Kevin Moore, for multiple strategies that recognize different audience needs.
As Party People demonstrates at OSF (where it runs through Nov. 3), we can expand our thinking—not just about how audiences are brought into our theatres, but about how powerful and multidimensional the relationship can be between the plays we produce and the communities in which we live.