Servant of the People!! The Rise and Fall of Huey P. Newton and the Black Panther Party

National Pastime Theater

By Carol Burbank

The volatile, violent rise and fall of the Black Panther Party represents one of the most theatrical stories of activism in the 60s. And Chicagoan Robert Alexander’s new play Servant of the People!! is an intriguingly conflicted mythobiography of founder Huey P. Newton, tracing his charismatic, visionary, despotic rule over the Panthers. Written in what Alexander calls “the new jack jazz tradition”–that is, in rhythmically paced, chronological sections he calls “suites”–the play is intelligent, thought-provoking theatrical propaganda.

Alexander’s goal is twofold and challenging: to canonize Newton and to explore the violence and destruction that contradicted his ideals and destroyed the Panthers. Throughout the play Alexander explores the continuing problems that block positive social change in the African-American community: drug abuse, violence within the community, and racist policies and institutions. The narrator–a fictional pimp who joins the party–chants that “the end is the beginning,” foregrounding the play’s argument that organizations that depend on violence end in violence. Highlighting Newton’s vision of self-defense and collectively maintained community services for black people, the playwright also explores the Panthers’ public image as “niggers with guns.”

After Newton has formed the Panthers and been released from prison, where he was being held on an unsupported murder charge, he settles into a life of paranoid luxury, running the party with a combination of bribes of power and threats. His addiction to cocaine, his brutality, and his fear are fed by an FBI mole, both a theatrical symbol of the police state and an anecdotal part of Panther history. When the party dissolves, Newton degenerates into a backbiting crack addict-dealer, assassinated because he stole a rival’s drugs. Even so, Alexander pays tribute to the memory of his idealism, which is as ironic as it is tragic given the horror the playwright reveals in this behind-the-scenes fictionalization.

Alexander chooses to paint the story in broad strokes. He makes Newton’s primary enemy the manipulative FBI mole, Louis Tackhead–a pitifully easy target in Alexander’s depiction. The playwright also presents the weaknesses of the Panthers in general terms: Eldridge Cleaver’s ego and love of media attention, Newton’s love for the melodrama of power, and the naivete of Newton’s hero-worshipping supporters. The constant drug abuse and the escalating Panther machismo are hit hard, a tactic that quickly makes the characters seem easy targets for the Tackhead’s corruption.

The graphic violence of this National Pastime Theater production heightens the tension of the story but reduces sympathy for most of the male characters, undermining our belief in their commitment to the community-service credo. Like many 60s activist groups, the Panthers depended heavily on the women in the organization, who ran the schools, wrote the grants, and organized events, often without credit in the high-profile media circles that thrust Newton, Bobby Seale, Cleaver, and other male leaders into the spotlight. The women were also the butt of sexual harassment and a crippling violence, well documented by those who survived. Over and over in the play, women are beaten in ways that demonstrate men’s weakness and mindless rage. When Newton wants company, for example, he forces a pregnant woman to snort cocaine by pushing her nose into a line spread out on a table. After Cleaver receives a death threat against his wife, he batters her repeatedly because she interrupts a phone conversation.

There is little love in this play. Perhaps Alexander meant the abuse and exploitation of women to demonstrate the heartlessness of violent political solutions, but the result is to undermine any notion of nobility or sincerity at the heart of the Panthers’ ideals. The main characters’ escalating violence, against each other and the women who carried their cause and their children, makes their fall seem inevitable even without FBI intervention.

This implication makes the play’s final moment, intended to celebrate Newton’s dream, difficult to accept and raises questions about the purpose of this kind of mythobiography. Should fallen leaders be canonized despite their weaknesses? Was Newton a hero at all? The play, in its poetic license, begs these questions, eulogizing the tattered body of Huey P. Newton in a final spotlight.

Director Frank Pullen effectively choreographs the visually striking, energetic cast through protests, group meetings, and confrontations. Actor Jonathan Bradley Wafer shares Newton’s physical beauty but struggles to match his emotional charisma. As his nobility fades, Newton becomes sniveling and pitiful, his rhetoric and Wafer’s performance stripped too quickly of their initial power. Tijuana Gray as the symbolic, dignified Sister Worker and the excellent supporting cast of women show the uncounted losses caused by his corruption. Mark Hayes, Samuel Jordan, and J. Richard Tipper as Geronimo Pratt, Bobby Seale, and Eldridge Cleaver also give strong performances. Michael Hargrove’s excellent performance as Tackhead can’t make the calculating FBI mole more than the Big Brother-narrator he is in the script, but he’s a chilling symbolic presence nonetheless.

Jack Phend and graffiti artist Dzine have created a multilevel urban backdrop that serves the play well–especially since it overlays the ruins of the speakeasy that was remodeled to make National Pastime Theater’s stage. In Servant of the People!! it’s a room where imagined and past glory meet in an uncomfortable, highly critical mythology, a political history as conflicted as the people who lived it.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo from “Servant of the People!! The Rise and Fall of Huey P. Newton and the Black Panther Party” by Warren Winter.