“In a nation that just can’t stand much more/ Like the forest buried beneath the highway/ Never had a chance to grow/ Never had a chance to grow/ And now it’s winter/ Winter in America/Yes, and all of the healers have been killed/ Or sent away, yeah/ But the people know, the people know/ It’s winter…/ Winter in America.”
-Gil Scott-Heron, “Winter in America” (174)
“There’s something goin on/ Something’s goin on [repeat]”
-The Roots, “Intro/There’s Something Goin’ On” from Do You Want More?!!!??! (1995)
In the last week of November 2014, Party People, UNIVERSES’s play about the Black Panther Party and the Young Lords, was finishing an extended run at the Berkeley Rep. At the same time, Campo Santo’s Superheroes, about the crack epidemic, had begun preview shows at the Cutting Ball Theater. During this one week overlap, the announcement came from Missouri that a grand jury had decided not to indict Darren Wilson in the killing of Michael Brown. Hardly a week later in New York, Daniel Pantaleo was not indicted for the killing of Eric Garner.
Maybe this is coincidence–but something is happening now, here, in this place. The simmering a boil now.
Party People grapples with the history of the Black Panther Party and the Young Lords Party, black and Puerto Rican activists who confronted not only the very basic fact of racist police terror but discriminatory and exploitive governmental and corporate institutions. In that fight against racism and oppression, they also imagined a new world, posing new possibilities: they created food, health, educational, and safety programs to communities neglected and exploited; they formed coalitions and relationships across lines of race, nation, and class; they imagined a humanity.
In the wake of the 1960s and 1970s, with many organizations and activists thoroughly abused, dismantled, or destroyed by government subversion, sabotage, intervention, and outright killing, drugs and the drug trade occupied communities of color, suffering not only the absence of those activists and radical energy but also the methodical dismantling of the postwar welfare state. If the scourge of heroin in the late 1970s provided sufficient damage on its own, the introduction of crack cocaine in the 1980s was a neutron bomb. Superheroes looks back on that period by delving into the role the U.S. government played in bringing cocaine into this country and into poor communities of color in particular.
Both plays look back from the present. In Party People, two young men whose parents or relatives were activists organize an art show/performance that also acts as a reunion for party members. In Superheroes, a journalist–loosely based on Gary Webb–tries to piece together the narrative of how the CIA and other government agencies facilitated the drug trade as part of support for the Contras in Central America. Rather than presenting narrow stories, rigidly loyal to timelines and geographies, both plays draw broadly, providing us with the assemblage of scenes and memories that make history, and in particular that help the make the histories of movements and eras, which are messy, scattered, and diverse.
Party People and Superheroes take up post-Civil Rights black/American history (black history IS American history–in case that is a question for you), which holds them together, complements to each other. Too long the American mainstream has treated African American history as something that begins during slavery and ends in 1964 and 1965 with the passage of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts. Then, somehow, we skip to 2008 when Obama is elected, and the world is a different place, one in which laws, policies, language, and people are, somehow, color-blind. These plays follow recent historical scholarship that argues to the contrary. We live in a racialized, virulently racist, and highly unequal society. As Gil Scott-Heron told us 40 years ago in 1974, Winter had arrived in America. And it has been winter for a very long time, despite the passage of Civil Rights laws, the development of Ethnic Studies programs, the increased presence of people of color in our media. Party People and Superheroes are our Winter-in-America theater, remembering, reflecting, and trying to represent what has happened in America the last 40 years–and not just what has “happened” to black and brown people in American, but how it has happened, who has caused it, what the consequences have been, what legacies we live with–how race continues to shape the conditions and possibilities of our lives.
But Party People and Superheroes wrestle with history–they are not interested in theater as a series of dates and reenactments, and neither are they interested in narratives of pity and victimization, nor with blind exaltation. They struggle, fight, converse with that history. From the present moment they shake a fist at that history, yell at it, punch and kick it. From the present moment, they caress that history, offer healing touches and words. From the present moment, they raise these spirits and honor them in all their beautiful and ugly struggle. From the present moment they act as the sankofa, reaching, looking back while moving forward. They pull our past toward us, and us toward our past, not simply to see it but to feel, with body, heart, and mind, the pain, loss, hope, power.
Performing such work is not easy. It takes work. And perhaps one of the most defining aspects of both Party People and Superheroes is this work: movement, blood, sweat, and tears. All actors expend energy, but the amount of energy given in these two plays–to the other actors, to their subjects, to us, to the spirits they embodied–was extraordinary. There was movement in these plays. Dancing, running, stomping, yelling, singing. Sweat came, glistening, dripping.
But we should not be surprised. There’s movement in the air and on the streets in this country right now. And that movement takes work. Great theater or art or culture tells us where/when we are, and these plays show us and demand from us the sweat, the work that the movement in the air, in the streets, in the minds and hearts requires. They show us what #BlackLivesMatter means: that a hashtag is great cultural communication but not shit without the sweat of movement to give it the depth of meaning and power. They also tell us what we see and know right now: that people are moving, that the beads of sweat are forming. That we are ready to exhaust ourselves and that exhaustion will not make us tired, will not cause us to fall. There’s something goin on right now. That should be clear. It’s in the streets but it will be the art–that movement art, the plays, poems, songs, films, posters–that will nourish brains and hearts, allow those forests Gil Scott sang about to grow. There’s something goin on. D’Angelo released Black Messiah this week, and the other night, Kendrick Lamar performed a new song, “Untitled” for the Colbert Report’s last show. And with that same intensity of movement he told us what Party People and Superheroes also have:
“Tell em we don’t die/ Tell em we don’t die/ Tell em we don’t die/ We multiply.”
-Kendrick Lamar, “Untitled” (2014)