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Activist groups join forces in a new musical in Louisville

A small group of actors stand near each other in a rehearsal space. They look off camera with different expressions.
Philip Allgeier
Actors Theater of Louisville
The story of the coalition built between the Black Panther Party and Puerto Rican Young Lords Organization comes to life on stage in the musical "Party People."

The musical “Party People” tells the story of the partnership between the Black Panther Party and Puerto Rican Young Lords Organization activist groups through poetry and music.

Both groups fought for civil rights at a national level during the 1960s. Their partnership showed the coalition-building power groups that advocate for marginalized people have.

The production is set during a present-day reunion at a gallery opening. As the members gather, they reminisce but also come into conflict with the two young counterculturalists who put on the exhibits.

Members of the activist groups are asked to reflect on their work and the cost of that work to themselves and their loved ones.

“It’s almost a cautionary tale,” said Steven Sapp, the musical’s director and co-writer. “We really wanted to give people an insight in terms of even today, some of these young people are mobilizing, what could be some of the pitfalls and things that can happen to activists and revolutionaries.”

He said he and the other writers want to show the good, bad and ugly that goes into protesting and organizing.

Sapp hopes people can walk away from the musical, presented by Actors Theatre of Louisville, with more knowledge, particularly about the Rainbow Coalition, a cross-racial group of activists, and with connections that went beyond organizing together.

“These are like long-standing deep relationships. I mean, some folks are like family to each other,” Sapp said.

Sapp wrote the play alongside the other members of UNIVERSES, an award-winning writing ensemble. The group combines theater, music, culture and history.

To create the composite group member characters for the musical, Sapp and the other writers held interviews with real-life Young Lords and Black Panthers.

“We spoke to them wherever they wanted to speak to us, so we sat in people's homes, we sat in diners, wherever they felt comfortable talking,” Sapp said.

These interviews included information that could not be easily found online, some that included more detailed information and conversations that revealed information Sapp said he’d never repeat.

Sapp said during interviews with members writers met the children of organizers. Those stories added another layer of context to organizers' work and impact

“When we started doing interviews, we weren't even thinking about their kids,” Sapp said.

Sapp said he wants to promote a fuller understanding of activists, the movements they supported and the sacrifices made for them to do so.

“You just hope people can get a, get a sense of just what that movement was, on a deeper level, beyond just the jacket and the beret, you know, in a fist in the air, and you see somebody screaming, it's much more complex than that,” Sapp said.

“Party People” runs April 5 through 16 at the Pamela Brown Auditorium.

Before the April 8 performance, Actors Theatre will host a free event where former members of both the Young Lords and Black Panther Party will be speaking.

Breya Jones is the Arts & Culture Reporter for LPM. Email Breya at bjones@lpm.org.