Theater

Racial Histories Repeat in ‘Party People’ and ‘Death of the Last Black Man’

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On Saturday, November 12, while thousands of New Yorkers were marching in protest of the president-elect, music-theater ensemble Universes was onstage at the Public Theater, performing Party People. Part docudrama, part musical collage, the show — created by Universes collaborators Steven Sapp, Mildred Ruiz-Sapp, and William Ruiz, a/k/a Ninja, and directed by Liesl Tommy — is a passionate ode to the
radical histories of the Black Panthers and the Young Lords, exploring the
necessity and danger of revolutionary dissent. Its timing couldn’t be more apt.

In this meta-theatrical musical,
Malik (Christopher Livingston), the son of Black Panthers, and Jimmy (William Ruiz), nephew to a Young Lord, plan a reunion for the fractured older generation: a performance and celebration
to honor their elders’ bravery and continue the struggle. But the veterans are traumatized from incarceration and infighting, fractious policy decisions, and betrayals by COINTELPRO informants. They’re suspicious, too, of Malik and Jimmy’s untested commitment to revolution and of the young men’s cameras streaming the event on Facebook. TV screens arrayed around the room show Facebook’s range of possible reactions — heart, sad face, thumbs-up — highlighting the emoji-defying complexity of this history.

Between scenes, montage-style song and dance sequences explore the history of the parties, black and Puerto Rican identity, and the new generation’s anxieties: Raised for radical action, they’re unsure of how to assume the mantle of revolution, and how much to risk. These sequences are raucously enjoyable, but it’s the quieter moments that sink in — like a scene in which performers present a bullet-riddled doorframe through which, the actors tell us, government agents assassinated legendary Panther Fred Hampton. In a ritual roll call, surviving organizers speak the names of fallen comrades, then exit the stage through Hampton’s door.

As the audience filed out of the theater, snippets of conversation relayed the frustrating timeliness of the play. “This” — radical organizing — “is what we have to do now,” said one audience member. “We have to do this all over again.”

History repeats itself more directly — and more heartbreakingly — in Suzan-Lori Parks’s early-1990s drama The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World, a/k/a The Negro Book of the Dead. Now in revival at the Signature Theatre in an exquisite production directed by Lileana Blain-Cruz, Last Black Man is a surreal, poetic meditation on the linked histories of slavery and colonialism — America’s endless efforts to violently obliterate black bodies. Unfolding as a series of “choruses” and “panels” that evoke music and painting more than drama, the play riffs on language and remixes
racial stereotypes with boldness and grace, creating an experience that is both revelatory and
irresistibly watchable.

Parks’s play centers, loosely, on a pair of figures called Black Man With Watermelon (Daniel J. Watts) and Black Woman With Fried Drumstick (Roslyn Ruff). Black Man’s life is constantly under threat: Riccardo Hernandez’s set,
an enormous white clapboard veranda, is populated with instruments of racialized murder — an electric chair; a noose tied to a tree branch. His death is staged repeatedly, but Black Man cannot move his hands to protect himself because he’s stuck holding an enormous watermelon, a prop that isn’t his but that he can’t put down. His scenes with Black Woman are reunions — “You comed back,” she says — but they’re goodbyes, too, in a world with a vested interest in killing black men.
As Parks repeatedly suggests, Black Man is, in these brief reunions, both returning from the dead and venturing back toward inevitable death.

Between these encounters, we meet an ensemble of historical and allegorical figures sporting names like Queen-Then-Pharaoh Hatshepsut (Amelia Workman), Yes and Greens Black-Eyed Peas Cornbread (Nike Kadri), and the biblical Ham (Patrena Murray). In beautiful choral interludes, the ensemble chants Parks’s poetic refrains, which link colonialism to racism and underline the role of language in perpetuating it. The play is 26 years old, but its critiques are current: One chorus member, And Bigger And Bigger And Bigger (Reynaldo Piniella), wears a black hoodie — a 21st-century addition to Parks’s catalog of the implements of murder.

These histories are bleak, but watching Parks’s play is not. She renders racial violence palpable but strange, transforming history into disturbing, evocative ritual. Blain-Cruz and choreographer Raja Feather Kelly, with the excellent ensemble, celebrate these elements of the play, emphasizing its rhythmic language and adding exuberant dance breaks. Like Party People, Last Black Man testifies to theater’s potential for embodying historical memory. That’s vital in a country plagued by racist violence and now facing down a government that may do little to stop it — if not condone it outright. “You should write it down,” insists one of Parks’s figures, of the histories the play covers, “because if you don’t write it down then they will come along and tell the future that we did not exist.”

Party People

By Universes

Developed and directed by Liesl Tommy

Public Theater

425 Lafayette Street

212-967-7555, publictheater.org

Through December 11

The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World, a/k/a The Negro Book of the Dead

By Suzan-Lori Parks, directed by Lileana Blain-Cruz

Signature Theatre

480 West 42nd Street

212-244-7529, signaturetheatre.org

Through December 18

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