The year was 1966, and Bobby Seale was ready. He stood on a chair on the corner of Telegraph Avenue and Haste Street and recited a poem titled “Uncle Sammy Call Me Full of Lucifer” to a crowd of eager Vietnam War protesters.
Last week, 78-year-old Bobby Seale, the co-founder and former chairman of the Black Panther Party, told this story to a sold-out crowd at the Roda Theater in Berkeley. Next door at the Berkeley Repertory Theater, members of the community lined up to watch “Party People,” a musical about the Black Panther Party and Puerto Rican nationalist group the Young Lords.
“Fuck your motherfucking self,” Seale shouted. “I will not serve!” The audience bursted into applause.
But 48 years ago, Seale’s passion for justice was received with a harsher response. Seale was beat up by police and arrested at the protest. Later that night, after being released for probation, Seal and co-founder of the Black Panther Party Huey Newton drafted the Panther’s Ten-Point Program. They had been talking about starting a revolution since Malcolm X died, and enough was enough. The two were ready to organize and defend their communities.
Capturing the deep history and complicated context of the Panthers and the Lords is a daunting task, but “Party People” — created by national theater ensemble UNIVERSES and developed and directed by Liesl Tommy — delivered with quality, grace and a lot of soul.
The show reflected the spirit of the movements — a musical eruption of passion. The stage was adorned with a massive, sparkly sign proclaiming, “Revolution!” The cast sang with spirit and intensity and danced with conviction to jazz, hip hop, Latin and gospel beats. Cast members sprinted back and forth across the stage as their booming voices filled the air. Lyrics demanded black power, brown power, white power, red power, power to all the people. The seldom moments of silence amid the music felt eerily intense and vibrational.
The play centers on two present-day young adults who attempt to bring their families together to commemorate their history. Malik, played by Christopher Livingston, is the son of a Panther, and Jimmy, played by William Ruiz, comes from a family of Lords. Jimmy is out to prove to his uncle Tito, a former Lord played by Jesse J. Perez, that he is not an “armchair revolutionary,” and that his reposts and Internet art have substance. Tito and the other former party members are disillusioned by the current generation’s lack of imagination and determination.
The stage was covered with screens that hooked up to a video camera Malik carried around throughout the show. They projected in real time the videos he captured. It was an unusual interactive performance, and it provided depth and a dynamic nature to the show.
Seale spoke of the early days of the Panther Party and how it felt to watch released tapes of Nixon telling J. Edgar Hoover, head of the FBI, to eliminate the Panthers. He spoke about how fundamentally he and Huey were just people who read the U.S. Constitution and fought to be treated as free people. Looking to the future, Seale still thinks we need to come together to fight injustices — to solve environmental problems, employ our youth and reclaim political seats from the interests of Koch brothers and big oil companies.
Seale spoke about being gagged and chained to a chair during a courtroom hearing. In this state of utmost oppression, Seale refused to remain complacent and pulled relentlessly at his chains and screamed.
“A person who is pulling at their chains is acting in the manner of a free person,” Seale said. “You need to get people to understand this. You need laws, legislation and policy that empowers the people.”
The Panthers and Lords were pivotal in the ongoing civil rights movement because they captured the imagination of people; Jimmy and Malik were not solely commemorating but trying to find something to capture the imagination of the people today. “Party People” pulled at the chains of a difficult history and let Berkeley sing and dance the revolution Seale is still fighting for.
“Party People” is playing at Berkeley Repertory Theater until Nov. 30.