Watching the Panther

by Cary M. Mazer

A Huey P. Newton Story

Freedom Repertory Theater/Painted Bride production at the Painted Bride, 230 Vine St., through May 23, 215-978-8497 or 215-925-9914

There's something slyly insidious about the rapport that Roger Guenveur Smith, in the person of Huey P. Newton, establishes with the audience in his vivid and disturbing 1995 touring one-hander, A Huey P. Newton Story. But the payoff doesn't come until late in the intermissionless play.

Smith/Newton slumps in a chair, a microphone angled toward his mouth. He chain smokes, squirming in his seat with a sinuous restlessness, his right knee bobbing almost uncontrollably.

Sometimes he speaks in a torrent of words, especially when he is reiterating the Black Panthers' political agenda, and explaining the constitutional right to bear arms and what constitutes revolution, punctuating his tirades with a repeated, high-pitched "Huh? Huh? Huh?" or "You get it? You get it?" (As he repeats the Panthers' "Ten Point Program," the sounds of a typewriter come from multiple speakers around the auditorium, as part of Marc Anthony Thompson's "live sound design," as though Newton were dictating the points back in 1966.)

Sometimes his speech wanders off. He can't remember words and names, snapping his fingers or slapping his head until someone in the audience throws him the word he's looking for.

What's disarming about all this is that we, in the audience, are there with him. He's not an entertainer, he explains, and this isn't a show. But we are in Philadelphia: Smith has devised a flexible structure for the piece he has created that allows him to throw in references to local colleges, local record labels, local R&B groups and local examples of police brutality.

Presumably, we're in the mid-1980s, somewhere between Newton's 33-month incarceration and his death on the mean streets of Oakland in 1989. When the sound design takes him back to media interviews in the '60s and '70s or to his solitary confinement cell, we go along with him. When he looks ahead, makes a prophecy about racism in the future, and talks about a black man dragged to his death behind a truck or a black teenager shot to death in a Littleton, CO, high school cafeteria… well, we go along with him there, too.

And all the time he looks at us out of the corner of his eye a few seconds after he cracks a sly little topical joke to see if we get it, and looks to see if we're shocked after he surprises us by making sounds of gunfire with his microphone.

The payoff of this odd rapport? It's not when he explains to us the difference between a geek and a freak, implicating the audience for just sitting there and watching. Nor is it when he asks Thompson to play a Bob Dylan cut ("Hit 'em with that Zimmerman") and takes off his shirt and dances.

The payoff comes when he asks us not to applaud. Making the familiar gesture of black power, he explains that you can't applaud and raise your fist at the same time. Then, when no one in the audience joins him, he dares us to admit - he dares us to join him in admitting - that that gesture, like the dance "Tighten Up," and like the Panther Party itself - has played out.

In one moment of prophecy, he speculates on how old he and his former comrades will be in the year 2000. Most of the names he mentions, we know from our 1999 perspective, haven't made it.

And so we sit for upwards of two hours (depending on how much Smith wants to improvise), watching a person and a movement being extinguished. Whether his death was an example of the self-effacing "revolutionary suicide" that Newton reads us from one of his poems; whether it was a suicide by drug habit; or whether it's because Newton and the Panthers were snuffed out, like Macbeth's "brief candle" that Newton is fond of quoting - is left for us to decide.