A beat of their own

When Oregon Shakespeare Festival directors approached New York-based performance group Universes about writing a play for their American Revolutions: The United States History Cycle series, they were open to suggestions.

"When we came back with the idea for 'Party People,' they were like, 'What, really?' " says Steven Sapp, a founding member of Universes. "And we're like, 'Yeah.' "

After a year and a half of research and writing, Universes finished the play for OSF in mid-May, which Sapp admits brought a little unease to a company that operates on a strict schedule to produce 11 plays in repertory over nine months. "Party People" previews July 3 and July 5 and opens July 7 in the New Theatre.

But last-minute and spontaneous prose was how the group got its start, he says.

"It's the way the company was formed and how we first started creating work," says Sapp.

Because Universes' work evolves onstage, the group has tried out parts of "Party People" in the Big Apple.

"We've done pieces of it in poetry clubs around New York," says Sapp. "We just roll up in jazz clubs, poetry clubs and hip-hop clubs and try stuff out."

The play, which will encompass theater, poetry, jazz, blues, hip-hop and other musical genres, follows a handful of young artists building an exhibit called "Party People."

The artists invite former members of the Black Panther Party and Young Lords Party, on which the exhibits are based, to observe the event, says Sapp.

"The members respond to the art; some are good, and some are bad," he says. "We're looking at people who are older and looking back and genuflecting on what happened to them."

Both groups were popular among Latino, Hispanic and black urban populations during the late 1960s and 1970s. They were also top-of-the-list targets for the FBI's Counter Intelligence Program, most of whose covert tactics, employed for disrupting political organizations in the United States, were later proved to be unconstitutional.

"This is totally not a docudrama in any way," says Sapp. "We are not telling the story of the Black Panthers and the Young Lords. "… If we tried to do that, in somebody's eyes, it would be wrong."

The Universes group has been traveling across the U.S. and to Puerto Rico speaking with iconic past and present members of both parties, including founding Black Panther member Bobby Seale, former members David Hilliard, Emory Douglas, Billy X Jennings, Ericka Huggins, Angela Davis ("for a hot second"), and Young Lords co-founder Jose Cha Cha Jimenez and Felipe Luciano and member Iris Morales.

Universes also went to the house of Fred Hampton, the Black Party leader killed by Chicago police in 1969.

"We also went to and sat in Fred Hampton's mother's house, with Fred Hampton's mother and brother, which was a trip in itself," says Sapp.

Universes core group, which wrote and did most of the research, is made up of Sapp, Mildred Ruiz-Sapp, Gamal Abdel Chasten and William "Ninja" Ruiz.

Universes is known for its unique style of theater, a blend of poetry, theater, jazz, hip-hop, politics, blues and bolero rhythms.

"Sometimes with us, it will start with a song, or a piece like a poem, or a monologue, maybe it will start with a scene," says Sapp. "For us, there are no rules to how something can start. "… It's literally what you are feeling at the moment."

In its third year, American Revolutions is a 10-year effort to craft 37 plays based on American history. It's designed to provide a cultural conversation of American history through performance, an ambition of OSF Artistic Director Bill Rauch.

This is a tough topic to wrap into a two-and-a-half-hour play, says Sapp, recalling the countless stories Universes heard during its study of the two parties.

"You don't want to sugarcoat anything, but you also don't want to completely demonize everybody, but you don't want to romanticize it either," he says. "Some of the stuff we've heard, we can't even put in the show."

"It's really about looking at this piece of American history and examining what we can learn from it. What we, those of us who are older, can teach the youth about activism and revolutionaries who were really trying to incorporate equality and people being together," Sapp says.

Reach reporter Sam Wheeler at 541-499-1470 or email swheeler@dailytidings.com.

Reader Reaction
We reserve the right to remove any content at any time from this Community, including without limitation if it violates the Community Rules. We ask that you report content that you in good faith believe violates the above rules by clicking the Flag link next to the offending comment or fill out this form. New comments are only accepted for two weeks from the date of publication.