Universes members Steven Sapp, Gamal A. Chasten, William Ruiz and Mildred Ruiz-Sapp perform on stage in The Clarice's Kogod Theatre.
Universes members (from left to right) Steven Sapp, Gamal A. Chasten, William Ruiz and Mildred Ruiz-Sapp use the origins of the black and Latino socialist movement as a centerpiece during select performances. (Photo courtesy of Universes/Saddi Khali)

Theatre group Universes transformed The Clarice Performing Arts Center’s Kogod Theatre into a time traveling machine, immersing the audience in the revolutionary and historic Black Panther Party and Young Lords movements through song, rap, and beat boxing in their Party People Salon series performance.

Universes, composed of Bronx and Lower East Side, N.Y., native performers Steven Sapp, Mildred Ruiz-Sapp, Gamal A. Chasten and William Ruiz, explored the very beginnings of the revolutionary black and Latino socialist movements in the ‘60s and ‘70s – both of which fought to organize, protect and provide for minority communities through programming and events.

Though known for its more militant methods during the Civil Rights movement and emphasis on self-defense against police brutality in the community, the social services the Black Panther Party provided for the minority community were often seen as the country’s biggest threat to the country by Federal Bureau Investigator director J. Edgar Hoover in 1969.

“What’s the number one threat in the country? Grits and Gravy! Grits and Gravy!” sang the performers, referring to the FBI order that rendered the Black Panther Party’s free breakfast programs, which fed thousands of inner city youth before school, as anti-American propaganda.

Freshman communication major Orela Anani, who was looking for an uplifting show to attend with her friend, said she was pleasantly surprised by the performance.

“I did not know anything about the Young Lords, and that really stood out to me,” Anani said. “I got to see how the Young Lords contributed to civil rights and how they interacted with the Black Panthers.”

Even more interesting was the way Universes included unpredictable elements of language and music to capture the history of the movements, Anani said.

“It was interesting to see the transition between the languages, English to Spanish and Spanish and English, but there was also a sense of blues and jazz,” Anani said. “I loved the rap portion. That was really fascinating. There was always a twist.”

For Gwethalyn Bronner, a Chicago native and board member of the Association of Performing Arts Presenters, the performance brought back painful memories of the death of Illinois Black Panther leader Fred Hampton who members of the Chicago Police  killed while Hampton was in his apartment, sleeping in his bed.

“I was a young girl, but I remember,” said Bronner, who described Hampton as a charismatic leader. “I remember seeing the pictures of all the gunshots going inside of the apartment and in his bed, [but] with no gunshots coming out of his apartment. So you knew it was an orchestrated lie. They took this young man out. [The performance] brought it all back to me very vividly.”

Though emotionally angered by the performance, Bronner said she found herself pleased with its message.

“It was very impactful, because what they said in the show is true. They don’t tell our children about these stories,” Bronner said.

An open dialogue between audience members and former Young Lords and Black Panther members Denise Oliver-Velez and Aaron Dixon followed the Party People Salon performance.

Oliver-Velez, who went to her first demonstration at the age of 12, and was active in the Young Lords movement, said she inherited her involvement in Civil Rights and the Young Lord movement.

“The struggle got passed down to me from my parents,” said Oliver-Velez, stressing the importance of oral tradition. “And I think that’s what’s important with what [Universes] is trying to do here – is to pass this on. Because if the cords get cut in that chain of struggle, then there’s a problem.”

As the average age of people in the Young Lords is 16, Oliver-Velez said she blames some of the “save-the-world” mentality on their naivety.

“We were burning the candle at both ends, trying to stick our fingers in the leaky holes of the system, and then the blood flowing out of our community,” Oliver-Velez said. “We were trying to patch it together again. I can’t even communicate with you the incredible dedication that people put into the work that they were doing.”

Like Oliver-Velez, Dixon, founder of the Black Panther Party Seattle chapter and author of My People are Rising: Memoir of a Black Panther Party Captain, started his involvement with Civil Rights at the age of 12 when he marched with Civil Rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr.

“I would later join the Black Student Union at University of Washington, and get more involved,” Dixon said. “But it was when Martin Luther King was assassinated that I decided I was going to join the Black Panther Party.”

Dixon said he didn’t realize thousands of other young people across the country had the idea of joining the Black Panther Party after James Earl Ray assassinated MLK.

“But it was because he was a man of peace and love,” Dixon said. “They killed him. Malcolm X had been killed. Medgar Evers had been killed, and John F. Kennedy had been assassinated. We thought that we were going to have to take stronger measures, and the Black Panther Party represented that.”

Dixon said working in the Black Panther Party movement was like moving a thousand mph everyday.

With five breakfast locations in Seattle, the party fed thousands of children around the country, opening local medical centers and giving out free groceries from their offices, Dixon said.

“The whole concept of the food bank came from the Black Panther Party,” said Dixon. “We also started the free legal aid program, which the government funded in 1974 and it’s still going on. There were over 25 government programs that we started.”

head2Brittany Britto is a graduate student and can be reached at bbrittoa@gmail.com.

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