First Nighter: "Party People" Definitely Revolutionary at the Public Theater

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It's very political at the Public these days, and a good thing, too. Richard Nelson's Women of a Certain Age, which takes place on now savagely unforgettable Election Day 2016, and Lynn Nottage's Sweat, concerning Reading, Pennsylvania factory workers facing unemployment, has just been joined by Party People. The explosive piece, developed and directed by Liesl Tommy, is assembled by Universes, Steven Sapp, Mildred Ruiz-Sapp and William Ruiz a.k.a. Ninja and contains the late-in-act-two, line, "Why do you think Donald Trump is president today?"

All right, at the moment the man is only President-elect, but you get the point. The outraged statement is hurled as part of a rousing, raucous play-with-music that looks back at the supposedly revolutionary 1960s and the manner in which the participants succeeded at reaching their goals or failed.

Malik "Mk Ultra" (Christopher Livingston) and Jimmy "Primo" (Ruiz a.k.a. Ninja) have devised a multi-media presentation for the party they're throwing to celebrate a largely Puerto Rican contingent of revolutionaries. (Set and lighting designer Marcus Doshi has hung a dozen or more monitors over the playing area to enhance the martial divertissement) It's the two men's intention to honor a group of Puerto Ricans, Cubans, Panamanians, Dominicans and blacks who preceded them a half-century earlier.

The entertainment, which begins the powerful, if from time to time polemical, work--and is choreographed to a foot-stomping, arm-raising fare-thee-well by Millicent Johnnie--is something to behold. However, the characters invited to behold it don't like what they see at all. (The cast members double as themselves and others from both the present and past.)

To a man and woman, they insist that Malik and Jimmy have rubbed away the raw corners of their not convincingly triumphant revolutionary battle, a battle that included a turncoat employed by the FBI. As a consequence, they tangle with Malik, Jimmy and, sometimes even more contentiously, with one another about how they helped and/or failed each other. Incidentally, these confrontations once again demonstrate--in regards to self-proclaimed revolutions--that a good part of their inability to conquer conclusively can be traced to intramural differences, to internecine animosities.

The figures raising inflammatory protestations repeatedly refer to the Black Panthers and the Young Lords as they bear retrospective witness. All of this, by the way, is carried out under a large, bright sign that says, "Revolution!!!"--the three exclamation points being perhaps the strongest suggestion that any revolution had been unquestionably achieved.

Among the issues discussed by Malik, Jimmy and the now older revolutionaries include Primo proudly announcing, "The revolution can be televised." Instantly, the disillusioned elders mock his boast for its confused modern outlook. Yet another volatile exchange occurs when the widow of an officer (Robyn Rodriguez) shot by Blue (Oberon K.A. Adjepong), a former cop, arrives, by invitation, to confront the man.

Woven into the proceedings rather neatly is a mother-daughter generational divide between then and now, as are any number of lines that read like slogans in the making--"commit yourself to the struggle" being one and the importance of "not words, action" another. (The post-election night I attended, the latter admonition was applauded.)

Sly and leavening humor crops up occasionally. Malik and Jimmy have established Twitter account #partypeoplecam, which, one of those in aggrieved attendance points out, is a device relevant to a time long after the era supposedly being feted. The point here is perhaps not a subtle indication that things can change for the possibly less cogent, can even, in some circumstances, come across as laughable.

The music heard throughout Party People--"party" is intended to be understood as having two meanings, of course--can be appreciated as the 21st-century equivalent of stand-up-and-carry-on John Philip Sousa marches and is by Universes with Broken Chord.

Speaking of overtly political productions at the Public, there is one extremely notable on-site precedent from just about 50 years ago. If you've guessed it's Hair, you're right on the money. Considering what's afoot nationally right this minute (as opposed to the Vietnam War back in that day), Party People has the potential to stir up as much of a societal kerfuffle.