COURTESY KEVINBERNE.COMSteven Sapp

‘Party People’ recounts 1960s stories

Someone once said that if you remember the 1960s you weren’t really there, but the revolutionary characters in “Party People” remember the era all too well.

The triumphs, tragedies and epic struggles of that decade are revisited in this vibrant theatrical fusion of music, drama and documentary history. Written by the New York-based ensemble UNIVERSES (Steven Sapp, Mildred Ruiz-Sapp and William Ruiz) and directed by Liesl Tommy, the nearly three-hour show burns brightly even as it invites reflection on one of the most tumultuous times in American politics.

Specifically, it’s the history of two groups – the Bay Area’s own Black Panther Party, and the Chicago-based Young Lords. Both were born of the desire for justice and racial equality – and both suffered injustice at the hands of their own government. FBI director J. Edgar Hoover once called the Panthers this country’s greatest threat to national security.

“Party People” frames the issues as a reunion and art opening curated by a pair of documentary filmmakers, who are also the son and nephew of party leaders. As the older generation gathers for the event, we hear their first-person accounts of how they were drawn to the revolution.

It’s clear their accomplishments, from school lunches to war resistance, are a source of pride. But the reunion revives painful episodes and long-held grievances – violent deaths, prison terms, betrayals, the fracturing of party unity.

A 12-member cast plays multiple characters. Ruiz and Christopher Livingston bring exuberant energy to their roles as the young filmmakers. Sapp, Michael Elich, Jesse J. Perez, and Reggie D. White show how the years have taken their toll on longtime party members, while C. Kelly Wright issues a powerful condemnation of the younger generation’s apathy.

Time seems to stop in a chilling confrontation between Robynn Rodriguez, playing a cop’s wife, and J. Bernard Calloway, as the man who did time for her husband’s death.

Ruiz-Sapp and Sophia Ramos reveal the misogyny that often relegated women to lesser roles; Amy Lizardo gives eloquent voice to the children whose needs often took a back seat to the movement.

First presented at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, the show has gone through substantial revisions for Berkeley Rep’s Bay Area premiere. Tommy stages the action brilliantly on Marcus Doshi’s two-level set of brick walls and video screens. Meg Neville’s costumes effectively evoke then and now, and Millicent Johnson’s hyper-kinetic choreography raises the temperature.

By the end of “Party People,” we see that the movement was no party. But as one character observes, the fight for justice is always worth it.

REVIEW

Party People

Where: Berkeley Repertory Theatre, Thrust Stage, 2025 Addison St., Berkeley

When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays, Thursdays-Fridays, 7 p.m. Wednesdays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays; closes Nov. 16

Tickets: $29 to $89

Contact: (510) 647-2949, www.berkeleyrep.org

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