Party People at Berkeley Rep: Necessary

Party People 1
Steven Sapp (right) as Omar leads an ensemble cast in UNIVERSES’ Party People, a fusion of story and song that unlocks the legacy of the Black Panthers and Young Lords at Berkeley Rep. Below: J. Bernard Calloway (left, asBlue), Mildred Ruiz-Sapp (Helita, background), and C. Kelly Wright perform in the extraordinary historical musical number that opens Party People. Photos courtesy of

There are ovations and there are ovations. The opening of an envelope gets a standing ovation these days, so the stand and clap doesn’t really mean much anymore. But at the opening night of UNIVERSES’ Party People at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, the audience was instantly on its collective feet at show’s end, applauding thunderously, shouting and hooting. The appreciative cast bowed, expressed gratitude and exited the stage. The house lights came on, and still the clamor continued. A few audience members exited the theater, but mostly the noise grew in intensity until the surprised cast had to return to the stage and bow yet again.

It seemed a fittingly over-the-top reaction to an ambitious, over-the-top show that leaves you feeling moved by the wheels of history and the vagaries of the human heart.

Party People was commissioned by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival as part of its American Revolutions: The United States History Cycle and had its premiere there in 2012. Created by UNIVERSES, a creative and social force comprising Steven Sapp, Mildred Ruiz-Sapp and William Ruiz, aka Ninja, and director Liesl Tommy (who is also Berkeley Rep’s associate director), the show is ostensibly about the Black Panthers and the Young Lords, two revolutionary groups born of the tumult of the 1960s that aimed to change the world and, in the face of powerful opposition, ultimately failed in their mission.

What’s extraordinary about Party People is how powerfully it works on its own terms. It can be kaleidoscopic and collage-like as it blends music (original compositions by Broken Chord) and video (live and recorded, beautifully designed by Alexander V. Nichols) and self-conscious art making with concise and incisive history lessons and, perhaps most importantly, human-scale stories that, individually and collectively, bring it all together and connect the audience to the past, present and future of this country.

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That’s not to say that Party People is perfect – it seems unlikely that something this sprawling, rambunctious, fiery and beautiful could be. Some of the dramatic monologues are too long and don’t connect as powerfully as they might, but missteps are rare in this 2 1/2-hour fantasia on race, revolution and justice. From the extraordinary opening musical number that creates historical context for this intertwining story of the Panthers and the Lords, we become caught up in the flow of revolutionary zeal – free meals for kids, education reform, fighting police brutality and racism, recovery programs – and quickly see how egos and conflicts and violence can explode the truest of intentions.

On an urban two-level set (sturdy and graffiti covered design by Marcus Doshi who also designed the dazzling light show) covered with video monitors, we slip in and out of the present, where two children of the movement, Malik ( Christopher Livingston) and Jimmy (Ruiz), are processing their complicated legacy in a multimedia show. It’s opening night, and they have invited a wide assortment of personalities from back in the day, some of whom bring troubled and troubling histories with them.

Tension and conflict run high as these former revolutionaries (some are still active, even if only in their own minds) take an uneasy stroll down a memory lane littered with ideals and betrayals, rage and regret. This mash-up of nostalgia and minefields can veer to the melodramatic, but then real fire bursts forth as when C. Kelly Wright as Amira, a former Panther and wife of a Panther wrongly convicted and imprisoned for the murder of a police officer, lashes out at Malik and Jimmy and their generation of naval-gazing, Internet-obsessed “revolutionaries.” But then Malik lashes right back, and it becomes clear that the generation gap is a major force affecting communication and perception in this particular crowd.

So many sections of the show stand out, not the least of which is an incredible monologue by Sapp as troubled former Panther Omar accompanied by the other men in the cast exerting themselves in a powerfully athletic (and seemingly exhausting) display of the choreography by Millicent Johnnie. There are also some gorgeous voices to be savored here from Ruiz-Sapp, Amy Lizardo, Reggie D. White and Sophia Ramos.

As relevant and as thought-provoking as it is, Party People is also mightily entertaining. Humor, music and dance go a long way toward keeping this narrative afloat, even when the weight of history and sacrifice bear down heavily. These may be some of the most invigorating sad stories you experience. History is not over-explained, and nothing is emotionally tidy. We don’t get a concisely wrapped up ending, but we do feel like connecting with the past makes for a more powerful present and, in glimmers, a more hopeful future.

[bonus interview]
I interviewed UNIVERSES member Steven Sapp about creating Party People for a story in the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the feature here.

UNIVERSES’ Party People continues an extended run through Nov. 30 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Thrust Stage, 2025 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $29-$89 (subject to change). Call 510-647-2949 or visit

IPH… a picture paints a thousand words

C. Kelly Wright (left) is Klytaimnestra, Traci Tolmaire is Iphigenia and L. Peter Callender is Agamemnon in IPH…, a collaboration of Brava Theater and African-American Shakespeare Company. Photos by Charlie Villyard

One general problem I have with Greek tragedy is that I’m not Greek and, most days, not terribly tragic. I’ve experienced, a time or two, the feeling of catharsis that can come from being immersed in godly and ungodly troubles. Fiona Shaw as Medea comes to mind, and Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s The Oresteia had its acutely emotional moments.

But my favorite Greek tragedy wasn’t tragic at all. John Fisher’s Medea: the Musical, which upended all that stuffed-toga stuff and had a ball at the expense of people taking themselves (and life) too seriously. That was 16 years ago, and I still use it as my barometer for making sense of everything that’s Greek to me.

I was secretly hoping that IPH… the new translation/adaptation of Euripides’ Iphigenia at Aulis by Irish writer Colin Teevan would be more giddy than grotesque. Sure, the story of a father forced by the gods to sacrifice his own daughter for the good of his country and its war against Troy is rough stuff. But John Fisher found a way to have fun and be serious.

The U.S. premiere of Teevan’s script marks a first-time collaboration between Brava Theater and the African-American Shakespeare Company – two companies that seem to work well with and benefit from one another.

I try not to pay too much attention to pre-show buzz, but I had heard something about the show being part rock concert (in fact, I read it in the program note from director Dylan Russell), and that made me think this could be a not-your-average-Greek experience.

And to some degree, IPH… is an attempt to make the ancient contemporary. There are some amusing and intriguing video projections (by Wesley Cabral) mixed in with live video of the actors on stage, and there is music, courtesy of a lively chorus (Lisa Lacy, Marilet Martinez, Sarita Ocon and Natalia Duong). Music Director Uma Errickson had fun with the songs harmonies, especially the number singing the praises of superstar Achilles (Luke Taylor).

But when it comes right down to it, this is a thick slice of Greek tragedy whose 90 minutes feel a lot longer.


The first 30 minutes of the play is dominated by monologues – first from Agamemnon’s servant (Peter Kybart), then from Agamemnon himself (L. Peter Callender, the new artistic director of African-American Shakes), then from his brother, Menelaus (Dorian “Jim” Lockett). The men in the play tend to orate, while the women actually seem to converse.

At about the half-hour mark, we finally get a glimpse of Klytaimnestra (C. Kelly Wright) and Iphigenia (Traci Tolmaire). They’re singing beautifully to one another at the back of the Brava Theater, and it’s a huge relief when they arrive. The pontificating and sermonizing scales down, and the drama kicks into gear.

Callender’s intensity knows no bounds. Every labored breath is fraught with emotion as Agamemnon weighs the life of his beloved daughter against the well-being of his country and its army.

And Wright is one of those actors you go out of your way to see because she’s so grounded, so real and so very grand. She’s larger than life but constantly reflects real life through genuine emotion. Her motherly connection with Tolmaire is deeply felt and brings us most fervently into the play’s tragic heart.

Director Russell’s supporting cast doesn’t have the firepower of Callender and Wright, which tends to diffuse their power.

Stylistically, the modern touches and the music don’t always work. The video can steal too much focus from the actors, although the sheer size of set designer Matt McAdon’s multi-level, gracefully ramped stage calls out for ways to bring us closer and deeper into the emotion.

The music doesn’t always work, either, as we find when Menelaus does sort of a beat-box rap whose lyrics are mostly unintelligible (although the chorus’ back-up “be doo ba doo’s” are lovely).

I kept wanting IPH… to break its Greek bonds and just be real for a minute. Callender and Wright come closest to making those moments happen, but the tragedy here remains more of an idea rather than an emotional state.


Brava Theater and African-American Shakespeare Company’s IPH… continues through Oct. 16 at the Brava Theater, 2781 24th St., San Francisco. Tickets are $15-$35. Call 415 647-2822 or visit or for information.

A note to readers

After three months on hiatus, Theater Dogs is once again back in action!

I was in Sacramento working for an excellent newspaper, but now I’m back in San Francisco and happily on the theater beat once again. At the risk of sounding sappy, can I just say how much I missed it?

Oh, I saw some good theater: August Wilson’s Gem of the Ocean at Sacramento Theatre Company (starring one of my favorite Bay Area leading ladies, C. Kelly Wright) and Margaret Edson’s Wit at the B Street Theatre (starring another favorite Bay Area leading lady, Julia Brothers).

And I managed to see a few things in the Bay Area. Couldn’t miss Wicked — leading lady Teal Wicks is as good as I’d hoped she’d be. And Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s production of Sarah Ruhl’s In the Next Room (the vibrator play) was one of the best things I’ve seen in a long time. No wonder director Les Waters is taking it to Broadway.

But now I’ll see as much as I can across our theatrical compass, from Marin down to San Jose, from San Francisco to Walnut Creek.

Very happy to be back.

Send me theater info, questions, complaints at

Review: `Radio Golf’

Aldo Billingslea (left) is Harmond Wilks, C. Kelly Wright (center) is Harmond’s wife, Mame, and Anthony J. Haney is Harmond’s business partner, Roosevelt Hicks, in August Wilson’s Radio Golf at TheatreWorks in Mountain View. Photos by Mark Kitacka.


Superb cast tunes up Wilson’s `Radio’ at TheatreWorks
««« ½


Even the prodigious talents of August Wilson have a hard time making the ’90s interesting.

Radio Golf, Wilson’s final play and the last piece of his extraordinary cycle of plays documenting African-American life in each decade of the 20th century, receives its Bay Area premiere in a tightly focused, incredibly well acted production from TheatreWorks in Mountain View.

Perhaps because we have the least distance from the ’90s, as opposed to other plays in Wilson’s cycle (such as “Fences” in the ’50s or “The Piano Lesson” in the ’30s), it’s difficult to feel the dramatic weight of a decade that is best remembered for e-mail, the Internet and little else.

Curiously, there’s not a computer to be seen on Erik Flatmo’s set – a “raggedy,” as one character calls it, office space in Pittsburgh’s Hill District that was once the height of elegance with its embossed tin ceiling. The year is 1997, and the space is being used as home base for the Bedford Hills Redevelopment Project, an ambitious attempt to obliterate the blight of the black district’s poverty and hard times and introduce apartment complexes, a Starbucks, a Barnes and Noble and, of course, a Whole Foods.

The project is spearheaded by old college chums Harmond Wilks (Aldo Billingslea, right), owner of a successful real estate agency, and Roosevelt Hicks (Anthony J. Haney), a banker. This redevelopment is just the beginning, especially for Harmond, who grew up in the Hill District and wants to take the energy of this project and turn it into a bid to become Pittsburgh’s first African-American mayor.

There’s a lot of business talk in Radio Golf – maybe that’s another reason the ’90s are hard to enliven because the decade was all business – but with all the exposition of Act 1 out of the way, we get to the heart of what Wilson seems to be after here.

As time rolls on, and as “progress” pushes forward, we tend to want to deny – or at least ignore – the past rather than deal with it. But without the past, how do we know what our success really is? And without a clear view of where or who we’ve been, how do we know we’re aiming for success for the right reasons?

These are the issues faced by Harmond, a straight-laced, follow-the-plan kind of guy. His gorgeous, successful wife, Mame (C. Kelly Wright), has helped formulate the plan to get him into the mayor’s office, and together they are going to head all the way to the Senate.

But just as the plan is kicking into gear, the past shows up in the form of two men. One, Old Joe (the superb Charles Branklyn), is slightly crazy and has questionable motives, but he is deeply rooted in the past of the Hill District and even more rooted in Harmond’s past than he knows.

The other is Sterling Johnson (L. Peter Callender), a self-educated, hard-working man who brings a big dose of reality with him wherever he goes. Wilson, in a rather lazy narrative approach, makes him read from the newspaper a few too many times, but Sterling has the kind of integrity that makes businessmen and politicians nervous.

Director Harry J. Elam Jr. has a hard time kicking the long first act into gear, but in Act 2, the play and the actors catch fire because Wilson is focusing less on plot and much more on character.

With his open, honest face, Billingslea is superb as Harmond. There are dark currents coursing through this ambitious man who adopts as his election slogan: “Hold Me to It.” Faced with compromise and injustice, Harmond has to find some sort of balance between his ambition and his integrity.

Billingslea has an incredible scene with Wright, who never makes a misstep as the supremely well put together Mame. The couple watches their goals and their dreams of a perfect life in politics crumble around them. And in this one scene, they have to determine their future as a couple and what their past measures up to in the present.

There’s another extraordinary scene in the second act, this one between Haney’s Roosevelt and Callender’s Sterling. The two men – from opposite ends of the African-American male spectrum – clash in a profound way, each calling the other names and attempting to define one another through blame and accusation. It’s a difficult, chilling scene, and through it, Wilson cuts right to the heart of why race in this country has been for more than a century, and will continue to be, such a complex, polarizing issue.


Radio Golf continues through Nov. 2 at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St., Mountain View. Tickets are $23-$61. Call 650-903-6000 or visit

6 questions for August Wilson scholar/director Harry J. Elam Jr.

C. Kelly Wright and Aldo Billingslea head a top-notch cast of Bay Area actors in the TheatreWorks production of August Wilson’s final play, Radio Golf. Photo by David Allen

August Wilson, according to Harry J. Elam Jr., is one of our greatest American playwrights. With two Pulitzers, the late Wilson was the most produced playwright of the 1990s and he looks to take that title again in the first decade of the 21st century.

Elam knows what he’s talking about: he’s the Olive H. Palmer Professor in Humanities for Stanford’s Drama Department. He’s the author of The Past as Present in the Drama of August Wilson, but even more than that, has acted in Wilson plays (including the 1986 production of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom) and he has directed Wilson’s plays.

He’s currently readying the TheatreWorks production of Radio Golf, the last play Wilson completed before his death at age 60 in 2005. Radio Golf, set in Pittsburgh in the 1990s, is the final piece of an epic 10-play cycle documenting African-American life in the 20th century.

Previously for TheatreWorks, Elam directed Wilson’s Two Trains Running and Fences.

Juggling a schedule of classes and rehearsals, Elam managed to find a few minutes to answer some questions about Wilson’s legacy and the Bay Area premiere of Radio Golf, which begins previews Wednesday, Oct. 8, opens Saturday, Oct. 11 and closes Nov. 2.

What was your relationship like with Wilson himself?

I first met him when I was in the second production of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. As with many other academics, he was incredibly helpful and very, very accessible to me. The relationship was great. I remember one time when I was finishing a book about him, I wet to see King Hedley at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles, and we sat and talked for 3 ½ hours. He gave up his time to me, but I know many colleagues who had relationships like that with him. The last time I saw him was when he performed his solo piece, How I Learned What I Learned, in Seattle. He gave me a big hug. That’s the kind of person he was in my experience.

You teach Wilson to your students. How do they respond to him?

What you want as a professor is texts that open themselves up to explore issues within larger issues and that merit re-reading, close reading and close critical examination. His work is all of that and it energizes students. Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, which was Wilson’s favorite of his plays, and is my favorite, is the one that people tend to respond to most. And then because of the family dynamics, they often respond to Fences and The Piano Lesson. Those are the more accessible ones.

How does working as a director inform your work as a scholar?

The writing informs the directing and the directing informs the scholarship. When I write a book, I’m looking at an audience of mostly other scholars – maybe it’s a little wider for a Wilson book – and I’m looking to interpret for that audience. When you direct, you’re interpreting for a non-academic audience, a wider audience that needs to get what the work is saying. What’s more, working with actors getting on their feet and moving around and making the play make sense or thinking about what this moment means in context – it all informs the critical thinking of what the play is doing. It’s a really enjoyable process.

Where do you think Radio Golf sits – not chronologically but critically – in the Wilson canon?

What Wilson said about Radio Golf and Gem of the Ocean, the last two plays he completed, was that they were umbrellas under which the other plays can sit. He wrote this play pretty consciously to connect it and make it coherent within the cycle. One of the interesting things is Radio Golf’s relationship to Gem, which is set in 1904. The characters in the earlier play are literally the ancestors of the characters in Golf. There are other connections to other plays as well because Golf is a play looking back through the cycle as a whole, and there’s another process of looking back, looking back on his own process of writing.

Radio Golf was written in 2005 and tells the story of a black candidate for mayor and the way politics and race and class all factor into his campaign. It seems fairly prescient.

There are definite resonances to now. The character, Harmond Wilks, has to figure out what he values most – his relationship to the community, to culture, to the past and how all of that relates to economic advantage. Wilson deals more with issues of race and class here. He was very interested in examining middle- to upper-class blacks, which he hasn’t dealt with significantly in other plays. He was interested in commenting on the connection of middle- or upper-class blacks to the community as a whole or to the black masses. As for looking ahead, a character named Old Joe says something along the lines of, “America is a giant slot machine. Wonder if your quarter is working or if the machine is broke, what do you do?” That’s pretty amazing.

You have a pretty amazing cast of Bay Area actors – Aldo Billingslea, C. Kelly Wright, Anthony J. Haney, Charles Branklyn and L. Peter Callender – all of whom have experience with Wilson’s work.

Definitely. These are some of my favorite actors. The hard question for me right now, because I’m so much inside the play, is does it measure up? Our task is to make it measure up and make people see the value that is in it. I’ve heard criticism that the language isn’t as poetic as other plays, but it’s set in the ’90s. The language is closer to who we are now. I think the language is poetic, but in a different way. Another criticism is that it’s not as spiritual as the other plays – no ghosts, no Aunt Esther, no City of Bones. But the spiritual aspect is implicit. In directing, my own impression of the play changes. I see so much more in this play now than on first response.

Radio Golf begins performances Oct. 8 and continues through Nov. 2 at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St., Mountain View. Tickets are $23-$61. Call 650-903-6000 or visit for information.

Review: `Caroline or Change’

C. Kelly Wright is Caroline Thibodeaux in TheatreWorks’ Caroline, or Change (Anise Ritchie in the rear is The Moon). Photos by David Allen

TheatreWorks tackles challenging `Caroline’ with soaring results
Four stars (Rich, rewarding, moving)

I cannot imagine any other Bay Area theater company other than TheatreWorks having the guts to produce one of the most challenging – and, if done right, most rewarding – musicals ever written.

It is a testament to TheatreWorks founding artistic director Robert Kelley that he consistently programs the Bay Area’s most diverse theatrical season, complete with crusty old chestnuts and highly risky new work, plays and musicals. And his subscription base seems to go right along with him, relishing the opportunity to be pleased in ordinary ways and challenged in entirely new ways.

How else to explain the presence of Jeanine Tesori and Tony Kushner’s extraordinary musical Caroline, or Change, now running at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts? Without question, this is the most adventurous, most boundary-pushing musical to hit Broadway in a good, long time. Tesori calls it a folk opera, and she’s right. Her score sounds doesn’t sound like opera, but it has the weight of opera, though it incorporates the sounds of the late ‘50s and early ‘60s (the show is set in 1963) as well as the folk and blues sounds of Louisiana (where the show is set).

The Bay Area had a chance to see the phenomenal Broadway production of Caroline when lead producer Carole Shorenstein Hays brought it out to be part of the SHN/Best of Broadway season. It’s hard to imagine any version – let alone a regional theater production – measuring up to that superlative work.

But Kelley’s Caroline is every bit as good because it’s different enough to be its own thing. The primary difference is the intimacy of the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts. The stage is big enough for a musical, but the house is small enough that you feel like you’re down in that sweltering basement (basements are unusual in Louisiana, where underground is underwater) with Caroline as she toils through the laundry of her employers, the Gellmans.

In the smaller space, you can really concentrate on the performances, which are entirely first rate, and on the score, which grows richer, more melodious and more emotionally complex with each hearing.

In the anchor role of Caroline Thibodeaux is Oakland’s C. Kelly Wright, a TheatreWorks veteran who has been away for a while but makes a welcome return to the stage in the meatiest role for a woman since Sondheim, Styne and Laurents created Mama Rose in Gypsy.

Not enough can be said about just how shattering Wright is as Caroline, the perpetually grumpy maid who says repeatedly: “I am mean, and I am tough, but $30 a week ain’t enough.” There are reasons Caroline is at odds with the world. Economics is a big part of it. She’s a divorced woman, 39 years old with four children (the eldest has been sent to Vietnam, “wherever that is,” Caroline says). She can barely read enough to find her way on a map, and she has deep, deep sorrow.

You feel every one of those sorrows in Wright’s blazing performance. Caroline’s already legendary Act 2 aria (again, it doesn’t sound like opera but there’s no better word for a song of such all-consuming emotion), “Lot’s Wife” is like a play unto itself. And Wright rises to the challenge of the piece and wallops the audience with the truest kind of hurt.

Much of Caroline is brainy and intellectual – not unlike an interesting New Yorker article – but when Kushner and Tesori decide to go for the heart, they do it in a big, beautiful way. And Wright is right there with them every step of the way.

Also giving a superb performance is 12-year-old Julian Hornik of Palo Alto. He plays Noah Gellman, and he thinks Caroline, his family’s maid, is the best thing ever. He calls her the president of the United States, imagines that she runs everything and that she’s “stronger than my dad.” Of course just about anybody is stronger than Noah’s emotionally distant, clarinet-playing dad (Ryan Drummond), who quickly got remarried after Noah’s mom died of cancer.

Hornik’s pure, sweet voice is assured beyond his years, and he handles the challenges of the score with aplomb.

Eileen Tepper is Rose, Noah’s new stepmom, who desperately wants to be a good mother in spite of the fact that Noah seems to hate her. Tepper emerges as the show’s third star with an emotionally grounded performance that aches with the character’s desperation to be good and to do the right thing.

As Kushner’s book delves into change – from the coins Noah leaves in his pants pockets that Caroline is expected to keep to the massive change sweeping the nation in the wake of Kennedy’s assassination and the rise of the Civil Rights movement – the excellent cast continually surprises and delights.

James Monroe Iglehart shows some devilish sass as Caroline’s singing and dancing dryer, but then he gets to be a dignified mourner as a bus driver who announces the death of the president. Valisia LeKae is superb as Caroline’s daughter, Emmie, who is going through her own kind of growing-up changes – changes that indicate that she would never settle for being a servant to white people.

There’s a dreamlike quality to this musical (hence the singing-and-dancing dryer and washing machine) that is captured beautifully in J.B. Wilson’s elegantly swampy set design and Pamila Gray’s firefly-enhanced lighting.

There’s so much to love about this musical and this production of it that it’s difficult to not write a dissertation about how this unusual story about an African-American woman and a Jewish-American boy at a time of cultural upheaval could only be told as a musical – as this musical.

But I won’t do that. All I can say is this: See TheatreWorks’ Caroline, or Change and open your head and open your heart.

Caroline, or Change continues through April 27 at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St., Mountain View. Tickets are $25-$61. Call 650-903-6000 or visit for information.