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Party People

A Revolution Not Yet Dead

I am an emerging theatre director, which means I am in the stage of my profession where I am cultivating and creating relationships with directors, producers, and theatres through fellowships and assistantships, also known as “paying my dues.” If you have already paid your dues, or are in the midst of paying, then you know that some opportunities are good while others leave you alone, sitting in the dark theatre with permission to only speak when spoken to, and then, only in brief sentences. However, I have had some pretty wonderful experiences assisting and the one I’ll share with you now actually bordered somewhere between amazing and, well, would it be too much to say mythic?

What I experienced was the culmination of a living narrative shaped by a deep commitment to community. For two months in summer 2012, I was awarded an Assistant Directorship at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, which meant joining Director Liesl Tommy and Universes Theater Company in the development of their new work Party People (gasp of excitement!). The year prior I attended Universes’ show, Ameriville, at The Public Theater in New York City, an emotional journey to that liminal space that only some theatre can create).

Party People is a spoken-word based multimedia musical, built on research of the Black Power Movement of the 1960–70s, specifically with interviews with the participants of two social groups: The Black Panthers and The Young Lords. The first day of rehearsals began as any other rehearsal process, a round of introductions and a read through of the script, however, this is where the similarities stopped. The script was as thick as a “local business” phonebook, but the size of the text was still manageable, especially for a company rooted in Shakespeare. The shift happened when Mildred Ruiz-Sapp opened her mouth and allowed air to cross and vibrate her vocal cords. To say she sang, would be an overly simplified explanation of her gift. I wanted to weep.

a woman smiling at the camera
Deanna Downes.
Photo courtesy of Deanna Downes. 

Interviews that both supported and negated the history books that oversimplify the Black Panthers as angry black men with guns, afros, and fists in the air.

The combination of the words and sounds created by Steven Sapp, Mildred Ruiz-Sapp, and Ninja registered so deep within me. I knew I had entered something profound, something mythic, or perhaps that it had entered me. As assistant director, Liesl and Universes opened their process to me, which consisted of late nights around a familial kitchen table with sticky notes, iPads, and the most amazing homemade cafecito I’ve tasted outside of a Latin country. There were discussions of interviews with current members of the Black Panther Party. Interviews that both supported and negated the history books that oversimplify the Black Panthers as angry black men with guns, afros, and fists in the air.

The stories Universes shared with me were stories of community engagement: college-educated twenty-something-year olds and young veterans of the Vietnam War who organized free breakfast programs and clothing drives, and walked kids to school and babysat, so parents could go to work. And those living members are all still activists in some way. Some are college professors or public speakers and some are elected officials continuing to serve their community. Universes also interviewed people who spoke of the government conspiracy that murdered their friends and lovers. Universes gave voice to survivors who carry with them their fallen comrades and an experiential truth of an American revolution.

It wasn’t until those moments around a kitchen table with Universes as they crafted the text and the songs that I understood that I was a part of creating the narration of a revolution not yet dead (gasp of terror!). What a responsibility! You mean this isn’t just for entertainment? And to add to the pressure, the stories being told belonged to our future audience. Steven Sapp, cofounder of Universes, communicated to the cast that the people the characters were based on had already promised that they would come to see the show. With this inevitability hovering in the rafters of the Black Swan, our rehearsal space, the work deepened. I felt a new commitment to learning music and choreography alongside the cast, so that I could be the best support for Universes, for Liesl, for the cast, and design team.

And to be honest, I had a blast as I attempted to follow Millicent Johnnie’s choreography, sweating, my thigh muscles burning. In fact, my head and neck found new ways to sustain bopping to the sound collaborations of Broken Chord Collective and Universes. Liesl Tommy, Universes, and the design team crafted a new representation of a twenty-first century musical. The myth of the revolutionary world that I was playing in became flesh with the visit of Professor Ericka Huggins from the Black Panther Party, Oakland and New Haven chapters, and Chairman Felipe Luciano of the Young Lords Party, New York City. Both speakers were dynamic storytellers. We shed tears together listening to their retellings. In Professor Huggins and Chairman Luciano we had primary sources of two sections of powerful movements during the 60s and 70s.

Professor Huggins opened her talk by reading the Black Panther’s Ten Point Plan and Platform. Somehow in the reading of that list she took the superheroes of our play and showed me their humanity. It was after her talk that Huey P. Newton morphed from the famous image of black beret, shotguns, and a wicker chair and became a nineteen-year-old leader of an organization during a time when civil rights leaders ten and fifteen years his senior were being murdered. And the assassination of Chairman Fred Hampton became the murder by police of a twenty-one-year old expectant father as he lay asleep with his pregnant girlfriend in a community house.

I sat in awe of their life experience and the detail with which Huggins and Luciano shared. Which also left me with a question: As an aspiring director can I talk about community as a part of my professional career? This process unexpectedly spiraled me into my own history. My mom has always been a champion of black authors. Our bookshelf was lined with the works of Virginia Hamilton, Amiri Baraka/LeRoi Jones, H. Rap Brown, and Zora Neale Hurston, but I never connected these particular authors to my mom’s life. Until now.

I called home and asked my mom if she was involved in the Black Power Movement. She said, “Yes,” and told me about her undergraduate years. Marie Spearman Downes (my mom!) was one of seventeen black students enrolled at Rutgers-Camden, one of Rutgers’ four campuses. On a campus of 1,000 students, she was a member of the Black Student Unity Movement (BSUM), an offshoot of the larger civil rights group, Black People’s Unity Movement (BPUM). BPUM was founded by Charles “Poppy” Sharp, and became the parent organization for many black power organizations in New Jersey. The BSUM, focused their attention on the injustices black students were facing at Rutgers-Camden. Rutgers-Camden a growing college, located in the black community, had few blacks among students or faculty/staff in the institution. On February 10, 1969, the BSUM presented Rutgers University President, Mason Gross, with a list of twenty-four demands. On February 26, President Gross met with the BSUM to calm rising tensions, but feeling that their concerns were not being seriously considered, the BSUM walked out of the meeting.

That evening the BSUM took over the Rutgers-Camden College Center. The sit-in lasted only one day, but classes were canceled for the next week while faculty and administration convened, ultimately resulting in the creation of an African-American studies program, black cultural activities, and a commitment to increased recruitment of black and Latino students. In addition, summer programs for high-risk youth were established, the university committed to increased hiring of African American faculty and personnel, and a faculty-student grievance committee was established to discuss new standards of grading. More than two-thirds of the demands of the BSUM were met.

That time is deep in me, in muscle and memory, because I was born into it, and my mother and father lived it. For me the process of assisting in the production became about remembering and community. 

Creating Party People, and being a recipient of the intellectual and creative generosity of Universes, Liesl Tommy, the company, and the community whose lives the play echoed wound me deep into my own history while simultaneously connecting me with strangers. In the production, the choreography, sound, video and lighting design combined to awaken my communal memory of this time period through my senses. That time is deep in me, in muscle and memory, because I was born into it, and my mother and father lived it. For me the process of assisting in the production became about remembering and community.

During the intermission of a preview performance, I was sitting next to an older, white male patron. He turned to me and said, “Wow. That was powerful. I was there. I remember some of that. It was an—amazing time.” He told me he used to live in San Francisco, then he turned on his phone and opened a search for “Black Panther, Oakland.” In that simple exchange a bridge facilitated by Party People was built across generations. The poetry of Universes, the lyrics, and music calls to muscle memory that connects us to one another and awakens us. Awakens us to research our past and seek out those living histories.

Working as an Assistant Director on Party People, was more than just “paying my dues.” It was more than creating entertainment. It has been several months since the show opened, which also signaled my departure, yet, the content of Party People, still vibrates in my life. I’ve been inspired to research lesser-known wings of the civil rights movement, like the Free Southern Theater, which sprung out of the Student Nonviolence Coordinating Committee. I’ve read up on the Voting Act of 1965 and have been struck by eerie correlations to our recent Presidential election. Most importantly, this collaboration prepared me to explore and seek out opportunities to become part of new direction(s) in creating a living narrative within a larger community of American theatre.

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Oh Deanna.....thanks for finding the words to describe a process that was life affirming, soul enhancing and as you write, "profound, mythic." I am humbled and deeply grateful for the gift that is Party People. May it please continue to live and breathe, touching lives and healing wounds.....You are a wonder. And I miss you---I miss everybody! The unbelievable Mildred said it best: Let's do it again!!! Sending you a ton of love.......

Wow Deanna... this is so beautiful!! Thanks for sharing. It was an honor and a gift to work with you and the team. To many more... sending you much love and light!! --Millz

"The poetry of Universes, the lyrics, and music calls to muscle memory that connects us to one another and awakens us. Awakens us to research our past and seek out those living histories."

As a professor of theatre history, I am sometimes dismayed at the young theatre students who people my class, brimming with enthusiasm for "doing," but thoroughly unaware of the need for searching, for looking, for researching the fantastic lives and stories that will make more dimensional and moving their acting, directing, designing, and writing. Thank you for providing this eloquent reminder.

This sounds like such an amazing and giving experience! As someone about to start, or maybe already having started, paying my dues, I can only hope for experiences like this. Do you have suggestions of great programs to look into?

Oh yes, Deanna Downes! You warm our hearts. What an amazing gift you are. Party People has done it to us all. I am hungrier than ever to know more, be more, do more. It was an honor and a pleasure to share the room, and space and time and ideas and Ninja's Cafecito's with you. You brought a power that the I hope the World is ready for. I can't wait. LET DO IT AGAIN :D Much love and respect, Always. <3

Fantastic! Those experiences, dues or otherwise, are one in a million. No matter what "role" we're playing in a process the window, the sliver of chance, exists that we will plumb something truly transcendent. So excited for you and how you will carry that with you!