Review: Fierce Females Tell the Story of Panther Women: An Army for the Liberation

'Perceptions Theatre and Prop Thtr are staging the rolling world premiere of India Nicole Burton’s Panther Women: An Army for the Liberation, a choreopoem focusing on the female force behind the Black Panthers and the Black Liberation Movement in the '60s and '70s. Under the tight direction of Myesha-Tiara with choreography by Deja Hood, the intermissionless, 90-minute movement, song and spoken word piece energetically ebbs and flows across the middle of the waiting room-type space (designed by Mari DeOleo).

Taylor Elie Talhamé and Alexis Dupree in Panther Women. Photo by Karin McKie.

The seven sisters are strong storytellers, each clad in characteristic black, denim and camo (costumes also designed by DeOleo), closely interacting with the rapt and appreciative audience in the long, narrow space under practical lighting. Sounds of wet traffic just outside provided city ambience. Underneath the signature black berets, Maya T.W. Jones, Alexis Dupree, Jerluane “Jae” Jenkins, Taylor Elie Talhame, Nia Vines, A’Keisha Lee and kendra renee continuously morph from the chorus into the cast of characters, including mothers, friends and lovers. Jenkins is Queens-raised Assata Shakur (born JoAnne Byron Chesimard, godmother of slain rapper Tupac Shakur), Talhame is Philly native Elaine Brown, and Dupree is Birmingham-born Angela Davis, probably the most famous female Black Panther, who led the group from Oakland.

Much is known about the male leaders—notably Fred Hampton in Chicago—recently documented in The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution film. Here, the women characters are fighting to tell their side of the story, to share their sacrifices and their contributions to the movement, such as their leadership in providing free breakfasts and health clinics for their communities around the country.

Alexis Dupree in Panther Women. Photo by Karin McKie.

The narrative is swirling but also linear, with repetitive touchstones announcing that these women don’t want your pity, but to bear witness to their fierce and dedicated activism. Understandable (and “devouring”) rage is another underpinning, with one noting “if you ain’t mad at something, something is wrong with you.”

With outward energy and compassion for each other, the women weave the stories of their upbringings, starting with their childhood street names, and include their first memories of violent racism. Birmingham under violent ultra-segregationist Bull Connor was called Bomb-ingham, and some weren’t allowed to visit the whites-only zoo. Many were beaten and called the N-word countless times. A timeline of Panther leaders and concurrent civil rights actions elevates the women to their rightful places in memory and history. Many ended up incarcerated, noting that “prison is just another plantation.”

This timely theatrical history lesson reminds viewers that African American women continue the work of the Panther Women to save lives and democracy on a daily basis, as powerful voices in the Black Lives Matter and other imperative social outcries. These Panther Women are the foremothers of voting rights icon Stacey Abrams, Georgia DA Fani Willis, NAACP Legal Defense Fund President Sherrilyn Ifill, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones, #MeToo founder Tarana Burke, #BLM activist Kimberly Latrice Jones, and millions more. As poet activist Maya Angelou (also mentioned in the script, along with Rosa Parks, Shirley Chisholm and Ntozake Shange) said, “if you don’t know where you’ve come from, you don’t know where you’re going.”

Arrive early to eat some delicious OneStop Jamaica Jerk down the block at 1849 E. 79th St.

Panther Women: An Army for the Liberation runs Thursdays-Saturdays at 7:30pm., and Sundays at 2pm through May 27, at the Davis, 1825 E. 79th St. Tickets are $15-20. Now in its fourth year of operations, Perceptions Theatre accepts donations to help pay actors, technicians, and teaching artists, as well as fund a BIPOC play festival.

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Karin McKie

Karin McKie is a Chicago freelance writer, cultural factotum and activism concierge. She jams econo.