“I’m attached to political theatre,” says Liesl Tommy, the Tony-nominated director of last season’s Eclipsed. Looking at her full body of work, you might call this her mission.
In 2014, Tommy made waves with a revolutionary production of Les Miz, while her Off-Broadway projects over the years—Appropriate, The Good Negro, Informed Consent, and Eclipsed (which transferred to Broadway)—have tackled issues of race, cultural tension, and historical injustices.
“That’s why I switched from being an actor,” says the performer-turned-director. “I wanted more control over the content. I wanted to feel like I was contributing, and moving the conversation forward—around race, women’s rights, and around stories of people who are marginalized.”
Eclipsed, about women held captive in war-torn Liberia, transferred from The Public Theater to the John Golden Theatre where it made history as the first play on Broadway to feature an all-black female cast and be written and directed by women of color. This month, she returns to the downtown theatre for the New York premiere of Party People, her first collaboration with award-winning performance ensemble Universes.
Party People, like Tommy’s earlier productions, is a political piece; the show explores the complicated legacies of the Black Panther Party and the Young Lords Organization. But for those averse to the droning tone of politics, Tommy says the show is anything but boring. “I’m not interested in staging political pamphlets,” says the director, who describes the staging as having “astounding choreography,” and “amazing music” that embodies “every part of the black American experience.” Universes is known for creating high-energy performances that blend theatre, poetry, jazz, multimedia, hip-hop, boleros, and blues.
Originally from South Africa, Tommy is driven to make political work that is also entertaining. Her name has become synonymous with taking big risks onstage, and this is something that shapes all of her projects. “What I call the ‘third wave of staging’ is when I ask myself: ‘Are we taking enough risks? Are these relationships dangerous enough? And have I pushed the actors and myself far enough?’” she says. “The last thing you want to do is ask people to leave their Netflix and come and watch something safe.”
“That was what was so beautiful about Eclipsed,” Tommy continues. “The politics of the piece was all over it, but you could have a rollicking good time going there. You could cry and you could laugh. I feel like that’s what I’ve got to do if I’m going to do political theatre.”
Party People, which Tommy co-conceived with Universes in addition to directing it, has been years in the making. As part of their research, the team spoke with Bobby Seale, co-founder of the Black Panther Party, and Ericka Huggins, a leading member of the party, among countless others. “It was life-changing to meet these folks,” says Tommy. “It’s very painful to open up some of these past wounds, to share these stories and to trust that people are not going to abuse [them]. These are very brave people—then and now.”
After sifting through all the material they’d collected, Tommy and the ensemble decided to set the show in present-time. Party People imagines a contemporary reunion for Panther and Young Lord members organized by a younger generation. “I thought, ‘The real story is what is the cost of being a revolutionary?‘” says Tommy. “‘What is the cost of laying your life on the line and being a part of a movement that has been white washed, and is not properly taught in schools? What does that do to your psyche?’”
The show, which began performances November 1, will officially open November 15. For Tommy, it’s comforting that productions like Party People are getting more support and attention from theatres.
“I felt like a lot of the time I really had to struggle to get people to want to do overtly political work,” explains the director. “[Now] it feels like the urgency to do this kind of work is tenfold. Since Trayvon Martin, and since Ferguson [the fatal shooting of Michael Brown], the awareness of the level of inequality that we’re living with—this institutionalized level—is hard to deny.”
“It’s hard not to engage if you say you’re a political, progressive artist or artistic leader,” she continues. “There can’t be a disconnection from what you produce to what’s happening around you. I feel like it’s my job to be on the front line of providing those stories.”
Party People will play through December 4 Off-Broadway. For tickets and more information visit PublicTheater.org/.
Olivia Clement is a features and staff writer at Playbill.com. Follow her on Twitter here.