What’s it about?
Black Panther Women is a telling of the true stories of the smart, resilient, and extraordinarily badass black women who played key roles in the Black Panther Party.
What did I experience?
When the lights dim and seventies pop music stops playing overhead, a group of young black women come out on stage. The women are all dressed in black and each one wears her hair in an afro. There is a sense defiance in their uniformity and a sense of beauty in their defiance. Black women are constantly told that their hair (and attitude) isn’t “good,” that it needs taming, relaxing, straightening. To this, the women of the Panthers say fuck that, we’ve got a revolution to lead.
The women assemble on stage and introduce themselves as they were in the sixties: Elaine Brown, Afeni Shakur (Tupac’s mother!), Kathleen Cleaver, Assata Shakur, Ericka Huggins, Deborah Hampton. They are just a few of the numerous black women that took charge and initiative in the legendary Black Panther Party. In the following scenes the women take us back into history, each sharing a part of her story.
Periodically staged as a Panthers' meeting with the women looking right at the audience and even shaking our hands, the power of the play hits me hard. The odds are set against the women of the Panthers from the start. When women were finally allowed to join the Party (it was initially exclusive to just men) they were forced to give up every aspect of their lives to the Party and commodify their bodies in the name of revolution. While their male counterparts move about freely – at least as freely as black men in the United States can – the Black Panther women are forced to endure blatant sexism, physical and verbal abuse, and constant disrespect - usually at the hands of their Black Panther brothers.
But the women never back down. Their spirits are constantly tested and their souls constantly beaten, yet they never give up. They march on, doing whatever needs to be done, supporting and trusting each other when no one else will. As a young woman and a woman of color in a world that still withholds basic rights from women, this is what I take away from the play. As fascinating as it is to learn about an aspect of the Black Panthers' history that often goes untold or erased, what I really cherish is seeing young women of color not taking any shit from anybody. While I am a little jarred to know that my original perception of the Black Panther Party as an inclusive, just, and fair organization was incorrect, I know that what really matters is not whether I was right or wrong, but standing by my black sisters as they continue to fight for respect and recognition.