Panther Time: When the World Watched Oakland

Personal Writings Politics

            Brooklyn          I don’t do musicals.  I’m sure it’s just me, but someone breaking into song, rather than stating their business, just makes no sense.  I know people love them, but, please lord, don’t make me go.  I’ll listen to mi companera sing “Hair” or “South Pacific” in the car, and I’m OK with that.  When she does that, she’s singing songs that she likes, and I’m not having to watch her do it.  I can listen or let it go.  It’s “each his own” thing.  Saying all that, I know my gang loves to see a play when they go to New York City.  They like to have their ticket punched somewhere near Broadway and be part of the scene.  Not wanting to be a spoiled sport, I kept my eye out for something that I might be able to endure that’s had some bite and maybe some politics and, of course, wasn’t a musical.

I got lucky this year and read about a new play in the Times by Tori Sampson called “This Land Was Made.”  A young, black, woman playwright.  A play set in Oakland in 1967.  A play where Huey Newton and the Panthers are front and center.  Someone up there loves me!  What a break, sign the gang up, and away we went.

The play was off Broadway in a small, semi-experimental operation called the Vineyard Theater.  The setting was a bar with a Louisiana and New Orleans kind of vibe.  Gumbo and red beans on the menu.  Falstaff on tap.  Pictures of musicians on the walls, and the owner claiming to be from somewhere in the state.  I can remember in the 80’s standing on the corner as ACORN members gathered for an action in Richmond in the East Bay next to Oakland.  I started asking people where they were originally from, and it was Arkansas, Louisiana, Texas, and Mississippi, one after another.  Folks had migrated west to work in defense industries in a second great migration from the South.  In fact, Huey Newton, a central character in the play, was born in Monroe, named after Louisiana populist Huey Long, and moved with his family to Oakland as a boy.  The narrator set the play in the period when, as she said, Oakland seemed the center of the world, rather than now when it hits the news differently as a place whose sports teams are always on the move.

The play was true to its times and the community.  One theme, as real as life or death in 1967 was Vietnam, and the son and brother who had been killed there.  The main conceit of the play though was that there was a mystery about Huey’s role in the shooting of police officer John Frey in a traffic stop, and the trigger might have been pulled by a studious fellow passenger they were trying to recruit, but Huey shouldered the blame instead.  In real life, Frey called for backup when he realized he had stopped Newton, was he was charged with manslaughter, had his conviction reversed, lived through another two hung juries, and was finally released.

Sampson added 60’s music, rapid fire dialogue, and full injections of hilarity in the first act which had us all raving at intermission.  The second act was more drama, speeches, and breakups, with attempts to tie up loose ends, and deliver the message, so not as rewarding as the beginning, but we felt like we had been witnesses to a great theatrical experience.    It was also a classic New York experience, but we left hoping this play grows some legs and gets on stages around the country, where it would mean so much more to people and our communities.