When I first started working with writer Tanya Barfield on this project, she recalled that her own stepfather had been in the Black Panther Party in the 1960’s. Nothing more was known about him, as he had utterly and completely disappeared.
In some ways, the Black Panthers have disappeared, too. Once on the cover of magazines and regularly on the 6:00 news, many recall their presence in the 60’s, a militant counterpoint to the hippies and flower power. Some remember the Panthers as “Thugs with guns,” and others know about social programs they pioneered, like the Free Breakfast Program. Some remember that J. Edgar Hoover called them the “greatest living threat to American security.” Which is incredible. But, then, so many things were and are incredible about the Black Panthers. Did the Panthers really run patrols of the Oakland Police, with guns in hand, and was that legal at the time? Yes. They did, and it was. Was there an FBI “Racial Squad” posted to the Bay Area to keep tabs on the Panthers, and take them apart in any way possible? Absolutely. Was Huey Newton really invited by Mao to China, and by Castro to Cuba to discuss the status of revolutionary politics in America? Yes he was, and he went. Was the youngest member of the Party – Li’l Bobby Hutton – gunned down by the Oakland Police a week shy of his 16th birthday, and a week after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr? Yes, it happened like that, and Marlon Brando attended the funeral, and delivered a eulogy.
At the first workshop we did in Oakland, there were people out the door. It was clear people were wanting to connect with this history, and to understand this complex story, which has everything to do with what it is to be black – or white – in America. Race is such a powerful topic in our country, and also so personal. We’ve all got anxieties, stories and questions about race. The Black Panther Party took those concerns to the streets. They were impatient with the civil rights movement, with the church, and certainly with America as it presented itself to them at that time. They wanted change, and they wanted it “Now.”
So we’ve made a musical. What sort of musical is it? is it angry? Sometimes it is, and sometimes it’s joyful, because this was a joyful period in our America’s story, when anything seemed possible to those in the vanguard of a revolutionary movement.
And sometimes it’s funny, and sometimes it’s shot through with loss. We’ve talked to a lot of the original members, and it’s clear that the experience of the 1960’s for a Black Panther Party member was rich and strange, and varied wildly.
As for the music, this show references what was on the radio during that period: Stevie Wonder, and Aretha Franklin, and Sly and the Family Stone. It’s got soul and funk and blues inside of it. That’s the spine. It’s written for twelve performers (ten African-American, two white). It can be done with a piano, or with a small band.
Political stories are hard, and working with history is hard. You want to get the facts as straight as you can, and know what happened, but we were searching all along for a clear and simple way through, a way to do justice to the complexity while keeping things tight and compelling. The big breakthrough for us was when we found that the Black Panthers had worked with the Black Student Union at SF State University during the 5-month Strike in 1968, culminating in a demonstration with 5,000 people present. Governor Ronald Reagan called out the National Guard an an attempt to break up that action. The kicker was that an SF State employee, George Mason Murray, had been fired from his job for making political speeches the administration felt were inappropriate. And Murray had become the Minister of Education for the Black Panther Party in the time leading up to his dismissal. That was the main reason for the Strike! So there was this huge connection between the Black Panther Party and this infamous demonstration, a demonstration that never became violent, but that resulted in sweeping change.
Starting with the birth of the Party, and ending with that display of will at SF State, where the students triumphed and got what they were asking for, we had a 2-year envelope of time, from 1966 to 1968, when everything good and bad happened with the Black Panther Party. Party members were persecuted by the Police. Some were jailed. There were internal disputes. They became national celebrities. The laws in California were actually changed to prohibit carrying registered firearms, and that happened expressly because of the Panthers armed patrols to curb police violence. And yet, if you can imagine, with us, what it was to be there and part of this Black Power movement, these were articulate and impassioned people who were caught up in a unique historical moment. They were carrying the banner that read “Rights for all citizens, not just the white and privileged,” and they were carrying it in a moment when seemingly everyone was freshly aware of this issue, and the need to do something about it. So these young people were very much of their moment: they found themselves in a spotlight brighter than they could have ever imagined or hoped for, and at the same time they found themselves in the cross-hairs of the FBI, and the target of almost limitless anxiety by a complacent America that wanted everything to be as it always had been.
Which leads us back to “Revolution Going Down.” We have this show we’re tremendously excited about. We’re looking for presenters. We’d like to share this with as many people as we can.
Our story delivery method is songs and is theater, and that has always seemed to us the right way to tell this story, to portray these larger-than-life characters and events. If audiences and the actors have fun with it, that’s not inconsistent, because everyone that was there remembers this as an incredibly joyful and alive time, as well as a period of huge conflict and transformation: Not the “Transformation” that Hollywood likes to tack onto every movie that makes it to the mall, but the kind of transformation of the kind we saw at San Francisco State University in 1968, the kind that comes from idealism and passion, and that changes what stands in its way, and that lasts.
In this way, the Black Panthers didn’t disappear at all. They’ve been with us all along. And their message that change can happen through unity and determination – that’s a message that refuses to go away.
February 20, 2014