By GAETANA CALDWELL-SMITH
I thought it ironic that the night I went to see Michael Gene Sullivan’s solo performance, “Did Anyone Ever Tell You-You Look Like Huey P. Newton?” an ex-Black Panther Party member and leader, H. Rap Brown, allegedly shot and seriously wounded two sheriff’s deputies near downtown Atlanta.
The deputies were serving a warrant for aggravated assault and weapons possession at the home of Brown, now known as Muslim cleric Jamil Abdullah Al-Amin. He fled. SWAT teams and police dogs searched homes in a cordoned off, four-block area.
(As of this writing, one deputy has died. Al-Amin has been arrested and is in custody, claiming conspiracy, and fighting extradition to Georgia. His lawyer says Al-Amin is innocent.)
Michael Gene Sullivan does, indeed, look like Huey P. Newton-the founder, in 1966, of the Black Panther Party, along with Bobby Seale. Sullivan grew up in Los Angeles in a Black, leftist family in the ’60s, looking cool in a beret.
As a five-year-old, he listened to his parents discoursing on the effects of economic imperialism on post-colonial Africa. He came to believe, along with many Black leftists, that “the way to the American dream was through revolution,” and Huey P. Newton was “the god of revolution.”
According to Sullivan, “Huey, Messiah of the Left, was going to defeat the imperialists with one hand and create the socialist utopia with the other.” One day, someone told him he looked like Huey P. Newton. His solo performance resulted from often being told of the resemblance, as he grew into adulthood. So he sat down and wrote the piece over a four-year period.
Sullivan’s hour-and-a-half performance was based on stories people related to him about Newton, after telling him that he looked like him. However, he also touched on significant social and political events that shaped his own life. One of the characters he portrayed was of a woman repairing his bicycle in a bike shop, which he mimed with crisp clarity as he spoke. She reminisced on how Huey Newton affected her life.
Diverging from the subject of Newton, he then took on the role of his grade school teacher. Sullivan played her standing on top of a desk, rather than sitting behind it, which made you recall your own experience of being a second grader when teachers loomed large.
She tore up a picture he had drawn, during “art period,” of a yellow hammer and sickle against a red background. She taught skewed history and geography, concerning the Russian communist scare. “Russia is right across the Bering Straight, just a few miles from our state of Alaska!”
He realized during history that it’s all about whites, as though Blacks did not exist. During the teacher’s slide show on Alaska, no pictures were shown, just the glaring white screen, as though to symbolize the whiteness of America. Her only mention of the natives was to say that they lived in round houses made of ice.
The audience was encouraged to sing, like students, along with Sullivan as teacher, the lyrics of “Of Thee I Sing” from a song book included in the program. We also sang “Marching to Pretoria,” when the “teacher” explained how happy the Blacks were to be going off to work.
Sullivan described an anti-war march he had attended with his parents. He asked the audience to do the LBJ chant with him. A slide of a black and white portrait of LBJ with swastikas on his collar, done by Sullivan’s mother, an artist, appeared on the screen. Zoomed in, the portrait revealed a distinctly penis-like nose.
There was a tender moment when, in the character of his father, he knelt down and fanned his young son’s face during the march to cool him off, and peeled him an orange. As himself, Sullivan depicted the sudden riot caused by police storming on to the scene to break up the demonstration. The family huddled near a tree on a traffic island in the middle of the street to avoid being clubbed.
Sullivan effectively portrayed an old, old man who ran a store, while sitting in a chair. The old man, too, remarked on Sullivan’s resemblance and reminisced about Newton, while waiting on people. He talked about the three great leaders, Newton, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, all three assassinated.
Now, as himself once more, Sullivan brought up Newton’s trial and then played the LA judge who was scared to death of Newton being on the loose, freed on bail in Oakland. Sullivan acted out his frustration at trying to find a book on the Black Panthers so he could learn more about his “double.” He went to a library, a socialist bookstore, and eventually found a book on Bobby Seale.
There were some funny bits where he spoke of rules Black folks should remember for the next revolution. The first one, based on the 1964 Watts riot: “Don’t burn your own shit.” He said that a Black man killed Malcolm X when Malcolm was just about to tell them whose stuff to burn.
Besides the assassinations of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, the other devastating events for Sullivan, as a kid, were the Kennedy assassinations. His mother, active in the Robert Kennedy campaign, was backstage at the Ambassador Hotel when Robert Kennedy was shot. The FBI gave the family protection because his mother had looked right into the eyes of the assassin. She feared for her and her family’s lives. Sullivan was driven to school in an FBI limo, which gave him clout.
Sullivan, as himself as a young man at 22, portrayed his experiences with racial profiling. He was accused by a cop of trying to steal his own car when he had gone outside in the middle of the night to move it because of street-cleaning.
He played the scene with such tension, there was not a sound in the audience. We saw the cop through his eyes. We were Sullivan.
He was not allowed to explain, after being asked to get out of his car. He was thoroughly searched and patted down, then forced to lie on the street, spread-eagled. Each time he thought the officer had finished questioning him, he started to get up, but was made to lie back down.
I kept thinking about Rodney King and Diallo and flinched each time Sullivan made a move to reach for his wallet for his ID. Eventually, he was handcuffed, humiliated, made to sit in the patrol car while cop checked his records; he was arrested for past parking tickets.
Sullivan ended his performance by expressing the disillusionment he experienced about his romanticized vision of Newton. Slides were shown of Newton in the wicker royalty chair, in beret, black outfit, and weapon, another in just a shirt and pants, in the same chair, and of other Black Panther Party members.
People started telling him about Huey’s decline. In the character of his father as an older man during a workout session, he tried to tell Sullivan that Newton was a thug and a drug addict. Sullivan defended Newton and said, in effect, that those who denigrated Newton forgot about his breakfast programs, the opening of schools and medical clinics for the poor people in the ghettos, and the other good things.
Huey’s downfall, Sullivan told us, came about as the result of FBI and police pressure, drugs and crack. Then Huey was dead. And while the war in Vietnam raged, Huey’s soldiers at home were “dying in the trenches.”
A sound track, with music from the Beatles to Jimi Hendrix, and sound effects accompanied his performance. Its volume sometimes drowned out Sullivan’s voice. At times the transition between his characters was rough, so it was not clear, at first, whom Sullivan was portraying. But this was rare.
Sullivan has given us an important and timeless work, at a time when, though there have been advancements for Blacks in some areas since the civil rights movement of the 1960s, it seems as though equality among the races is moving backward rather than forward. Consider the verdict in the Amadou Diallo case, California’s passing of Proposition 21 (which targets young people of color), and the overthrow of affirmative action in California and, recently, in Florida.
Michael Gene Sullivan is an engaging, focused actor and mime. I think he is actually better looking than Huey P. Newton. The resemblance, however, is uncanny. He feels he was born to champion the revolutionary leader and to ask that people remember him not as he was at the end of his life, but for what he had done to further the civil rights of Blacks in the United States.
Sullivan is an actor, writer, director, and collective member of the Tony Award-winning San Francisco Mime Troupe and has performed in a half-dozen of its productions-as well as with other professional companies in the Bay Area.
He has also played his hero, Huey P. Newton, in “The Rise and Fall of Huey P. Newton and the Black Panther Party” at the Lorraine Hansberry Theater in San Francisco. Other credits include television and films.