BLACK PANTHER WOMEN Presented by Women of Color Productions.
Written and directed by Jacqueline Wade.
Reviewed by C.J. EHRLICH
At the 13 Street Repertory Theatre, 50 West 13th Street, NYC, run extended to August 7th.
Theatre magic is alive and well (and black and proud) in a little theatre on 13th Street
For my money, good theatre offers not only entertainment and novelty; it takes us to places we’ve never been. Better theatre does it in ways we don’t expect. And the most magical theatre invites audiences to be full partners on the journey. Playwright-director Jacqueline Wade brings this kind of sorcery to the 13th Street Rep with Black Panther Women. Onto a tiny black box stage she’s conjured up a sweeping history of a radical movement in a turbulent era, using virtually no sets or props, just an ebullient cast of thirteen women and the audiences’ imaginations.
Black Panther Women is as much performance art as a play, and while Wade is listed as playwright and director in the program, she should probably be credited as choreographer as well. The gritty, sometimes violent, show weaves fact and fiction, linear and nonlinear narrative, movement, dialogue, and sound to take audiences back to the seeds of Black activism in the 1960s. Wade paints moving stage pictures of the era in a series of short scenes, vignettes, music and dance. Her, for the most part, succinct dialogue reveals worlds and shapes characters. This is not quite a play with music; it’s not quite a play with dance; it’s an experience.
Black Panther Women is a show about the women who were involved in the creation, struggles and eventual destruction of the Black Panther Party, a militant black nationalist and Marxist-socialist group founded in the tumultuous 1960s.
Today’s activists may not be aware of this social movement, political party, cultural influence, and distant relative of the Black Lives Matter movement.
Founders of what was originally the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense openly toted shotguns through the streets of Oakland CA to challenge police brutality (kids – please don’t try this at home). The BPP went national, attracting hundreds of young men and women of color fed up with what they saw as the unmet promises of the Civil Rights Act. At its best, the movement ran grassroots community social programs, like their free breakfasts program (inspiring the government program that now feeds millions of children). At its worst the BPP became identified with violent crimes and armed standoffs. Under intense FBI scrutiny and looming incarcerations, members went into exile. The west coast chapters broke with the east coast. The party imploded in the late 1970s amidst bitter infighting, notably between leaders Huey Newton, Bobbie Seale and Eldridge Cleaver. And the Party’s rigid machismo made abuse and even beatings of Panther women almost institutional, resulting in defections of some of its hardest working, brightest members.
BPP women were instructed not to bother with hair or make-up; they were told to use their sexuality to seduce the enemy; they were told not to try to claim a man, just to cook for him and bed him. Putting just as much energy into the cause as the men, they were second class citizens in a war for equality. Wade puts the personal into this political stew of radicalism, idealism and sexism.
I knew we were in for something special when the lights in the darkened theatre went up and we were confronted by thirteen black women poised for battle and resistance, like an army of Charlie’s Angels in black fatigues, some with the emblematic Panther beret, hair big and natural. In that moment, and many others, Wade uses the small stage to its best advantage, crowding it with movement and energy, making us feel like the world is ready to explode out of the theatre and into the streets. At one point a character on the run did in fact exit the theatre through the audience. She was cheered on by an older woman completely caught up in the action: “You go, girl!”
The play is full of lushly evocative moments created by the ensemble of multi-talented women. There’s a chaotic siege, a gang attack, riots in the streets, violent tests of loyalty, and a jubilant dance party scored to 70s pop. “Four hundred years of rage” pour out into a melee that truly evokes the chaos and anger following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.
The cast shimmy and shake and stride their way through a montage underscored by 1960s rock, sweeping us up in a whirlwind of Black consciousness-raising. We are introduced to several characters whose journeys will take them to key roles in the BPP. Elaine Brown (Billie Wyatt) is an adorable little girl who wants to grow up to be Shirley Temple. Her mama quickly disabuses her of this plan and scrapes to get her out of the ‘hood and into a tony private school. Elaine finds herself living in two worlds and will clearly have to choose one. Joana Byron, aka Assata Shakur (LaTisha Davis) dreams of being Grace Kelley in a poodle skirt; she falls in love with Elvis, until he ruins it by telling her that “the only thing a black girl can do for me is shine my blue suede shoes.” Assata and Elaine will have their triumphs and tragedies, but to go into any more detail would spoil a show that is well worth experiencing for oneself.
Other story strands follow Kathleen Neal Cleaver (Sunny Shen), and Alice Faye Williams (Deirdre Monique Benton), aka Afeni Shakur, aka Tupac’s mom.
In the men’s camp, Panther leaders Huey Newton (J Christina L Williams), Eldridge Cleaver (LaTisha Davis), and Bobbie Seale (Joya Richmond) are all played with such manly gravitas and sexuality that we can see why the Panther women stayed with them despite the Party’s raging sexism.
And in what almost seems like comic relief in this hard-hitting piece, Deborah Winefield plays a paranoid, scheming J Edgar Hoover, barking orders at Agent Mellon (Jada Lynn Gaskins), a sidekick who seems more terrified of his boss than the Panthers.
One pitfall of many history and herstory plays of large scope is the challenge of keeping up with all the balls that have been tossed aloft. The second act is the weaker of the two. Wade changes storytelling style and ladles out exposition to account for complex philosophical shifts within Party leadership and global travels, with more wind than sails. The show loses some momentum and the weaker performances become a bit more prominent; the act could stand tightening. But the action picks up again, and scenes depicting the women’s dawning resistance to male cruelty are riveting.
The Oakland Museum is currently running the “All Power to the People: Black Panthers at 50” exhibition. Assata Shakur resides in exile in Cuba. And in a real life magic moment, after the show, the playwright herself introduced our audience to a special talk-back guest, a former NY lady Panther.
She gave the show one fist, and two claws, up.