If you’re a Bay Area resident looking for holiday entertainment that will be more relevant than Christmas carols, Party People at Berkeley Rep is the musical drama you won’t want to miss. Written and created by Universes (Mildred Ruiz-Sapp, Steven Sapp and William Ruiz), a theater collective started by a dancer and two poets in the South Bronx twenty years ago, Party People is an amazing production that has more wattage than a whole block of holiday lights.

Based on interviews with Black Panther and Young Lords activists from back in the 60s, Party People is a powerful ensemble piece exploring the meaning and cost of revolt back in the day, the failure of grassroots parties like the Panthers and the Lords to make a lasting impact on mainstream culture today, and the disconnects between the young people of the Oughts who practice revolution via social media (#handsupFerguson #BlackLivesMatter), vs. demonstrating in the streets.

Party People thrums with energy, telling the story of OG politicos meeting again after many years, only to relive and retell the stories of searing drama and protest that brought them together and then blasted them apart. Old wounds, family resentments, partner struggles all come out as characters reveal all they gave–and gave up–for the Movement.

The US government, in the persona of the FBI, the CIA and the NSA/Homeland Security has a starring role, as Universes mercilessly lays out the lies and traps the government used to get activists and break up their families back in the day–with the suggestion things are not so different now.

The staging is fast-paced, the music tight, and the movement is natural and engaging but the real energy comes from the powerful ways the authors structure the painful looking back at the past from the perspective of today. Snitches, ballers, players, saints–Party People treats the viewer to a fast-paced medley of Movement moments and modern insights, as in the dispute between two young guns of today using social media as their consciousness-raising tool, and an older activist who (still and forever) wants to take it all to the streets.

Framed as a moment when old and new come together at a Lords/Panthers retrospective that turns sharp as former colleagues reunite after many years, Party People touches on many Movement moments, and doesn’t shy away from the costs and the failures. The acting is strong, with co-author William Ruiz (Ninja) getting special kudos for his role as Jimmy, nephew to a Young Lord and an activist who used clowning, irony, and performance to add sardonic power to his art–but who doesn’t seem to get what being an activist back in the day has cost the survivors he’s brought back together after so many years.

Sapp and Ruiz- Sapp are both amazing. with strong ensemble players Christopher Livingston, C. Kelly Wright, Michael Elich, Sophia Ramos, Amy Lizardo, J. Bernard Calloway, Robynn Rodriguez, Jesse J. Perez and Reggie D. White all doing a great job.

The play is dazzling on so many levels. For all of us who live in Oakland, Berkeley and part of the Bay Area where the legacy of the Black Panthers and radical politics still resonates, references to by-gone revolutionary mantras — free breakfasts for youth, Freedom Schools,, fighting police repression and government spying — bring the shadow of the Sixties right into today, big-time.

But it’s not one big long rant; it’s brilliant contemporary entertainment that will make you laugh and cry at almost the same time. The music and movement are gorgeous, and the set pieces dazzling. If you are going to see one special show in the next few weeks, you should make this one it–especially since the end of the run is coming up November 30th and the show may not come around again for a while.

Party People: By Universes (Steven Sapp, Mildred Ruiz-Sapp, William Ruiz).
Directed by Liesl Tommy.
Through Nov. 16.
Berkeley Rep’s Thrust Stage, 2025 Addison St., Berkeley. Two hours, 40 minutes.
Tickets $29-$89, subject to change.
(510) 647-2949

About The Author

Susan Mernit is editor & publisher of Oakland Local (oaklandlocal.com) a news & community hub for Oakland, CA. A former VP at AOL & Netscape, & former! Yahoo Senior Director, Mernit was consulting program manager for The Knight News Challenge, 2008-09; was a 2012 Stanford Carlos McClatchy Fellow; and is a board adviser to The Center for Health Reporting at USC, Annenberg School of Journalism. She has consulted with many non-profit organizations on strategy, product development and social media/engagement, including Salon.com, TechSoup Global, Public Radio International and the Institute for Policy Studies/Economic Hardship Reporting Project, led by Barbara Ehrenreich.

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