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The story of Black Panther Huey P. Newton has as much resonance and relevance today as it did in the '60s.

A Panther Personified


"A Huey P. Newton Story"
Virginia Museum of Fine Arts
8 p.m.
April 30-May 1

Some of today's news events are strongly reminiscent of one of our country's most turbulent decades: Protesters march in the streets of New York. Police officers are charged with brutality against African Americans. In a country far away, the United States is involved in a war few of us understand.

In the midst of this cultural déj… vu, the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts brings the Obie-award winning play, "A Huey P. Newton Story," to town as the last production in the year's FastForward series. Featuring voices, sounds and songs from the '60s, the one-man show explores the tumultuous life and dismal death of Huey Newton, one of the founders of the Black Panther Party. More than a history lesson, the play is a challenging, explicitly political work of performance art that addresses issues of idealism, equality and exploitation still relevant today.

"This is not a period piece," insists Roger Guenveur Smith, the actor who created "Newton" in 1993 and has taken it across the country and around the world in the years since. "The questions Huey asked are still unanswered today and, if anything, become more pertinent as time goes on," he says.

Smith has gained national recognition through his roles in Spike Lee's movies, from "Do the Right Thing" in 1989 to last year's "He Got Game." He'll play a detective in Lee's next film, "Summer of Sam," due in theaters this summer.

But clearly his passion is wrapped up in "Newton." "Huey is my Hamlet," says the lean, soft-spoken actor. "In a political sense, his story has more impact because of recent events. But as one of those heroes who has fallen, in a philosophical and dramatic sense, his story will always be relevant." By all accounts, Smith has focused his passion into a powerful, if not always pleasant performance. "Watching the play can be a discomforting experience," Smith concedes. "I expect it is something like a traffic accident — it's impossible to keep your eyes away."

Newton was a poster boy for the Black Panthers in the late 1960s. An infamous picture of the revolutionary leader sitting in a high-backed rattan chair, a rifle in one hand, a spear in the other, became a defining image of the period. Newton's arrest on manslaughter charges in 1967 galvanized the Black Panthers in a "Free Huey" movement that led to a reversal of his conviction in 1971. But the movement's triumph was the beginning of Newton's personal downfall.

"After he was released, Huey went on a college speaking tour that he described as the worst experience of his life," explains Smith. "People wanted the poster to come to life. He did not fulfill people's expectations. He couldn't compete with other charismatic leaders of his age: Abbie Hoffman, Bobby Seale, Stokeley Carmichael. People walked out on him, people booed him." Newton battled booze, drugs and police harassment for years until 1989 when he was gunned down by a drug dealer on the streets of Oakland. He was only 47.

As Smith puts it, "Huey couldn't channel his energies within the social context [of the '60s]." A Ph.D. in philosophy and author of several well-regarded books, Newton wanted to engage people in constructive dialogue at a time when people wanted revolutionary change. He eventually fell victim to his vices. "It's ironic that a man with the discipline to build a powerful, international group died such a small, cheap death," says Smith.

To tell Newton's story, Smith was granted exclusive access to unpublished writings and personal artifacts by the Dr. Huey P. Newton Foundation. He collaborated on the project with musician Marc Anthony Thompson, who describes the development process as overwhelming. "The first two days of work for us were simply sitting around and sifting through all of the recorded history that Roger brought out from [the Foundation's archives in] Berkeley," Thompson says. "It was scarily voyeuristic and mind boggling all in one breath."

Both Smith and Thompson wanted to bring Newton's story to life using a more experimental format. The play is structured as a press interview with Thompson's eclectic sound design punctuating key scenes. "There is an improvisational edge to [the show]," says Smith. "The audience is an active participant."

Thompson says his role in the performance is ever changing: "We don't know what's going to happen from night to night. Certain nights, if the moon is just right, I've been known to speak during the show. Other nights, you wouldn't even know I was there."

The impromptu nature of the performance has kept the play fresh for Smith even after six years. "Each audience brings a different perspective; every town has a different vibe, a different mood," he says. Smith seems as committed to the form of his work as he is to its subject. "It's important to support independent theater as we go into the next century," urges Smith. "We continue to make technological developments that are supposed to make life easier, but they don't really change the quality of our lives. Now is a good time to gather around the campfire and go back to our basic human instincts. It's a good time to turn off your beepers, cell phones, and televisions, and listen to people's

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