By: Sam Affoumado
Flashback: In the year 1969, homosexual acts were illegal in every state except Illinois. New York City was known for its mafia-controlled, clandestine gay bars, which were the epicenters of homosexual social life where gay men and women could be themselves, at least, for the night. However, police raids were frequent and patrons of these bars were often harassed before being arrested. Worse than being incarcerated, the names of the offenders were printed in all of the major newspapers and, ultimately, this public exposure was responsible for ruining their careers, alienating their friends and families and destroying their lives.
On June 28, 1969, a small contingent of the New York City Public Morals Police Squad raided the Stonewall Inn, a popular gay bar in Greenwich Village. For the first time, some patrons of the bar resisted arrest and in the wee hours of that sweltering evening, all hell broke loose.
Hit the Wall, a new play by Ike Holter, directed by Eric Hoff, developed and produced in Chicago in 2012 by the Inconvenience as part of Steppenwolf’s Garage Rep series, had its New York premiere on March 10th at the Barrow Street Theater just steps away from the site of the Stonewall Inn. The play focuses on the moments before, during and after the first night of the riots.
Writing about an actual historical event with all of its societal ramifications is, no doubt, a monumental task. The pitfalls, of course, are in attempting to strike a balance among the historical truths, the myths springing up from revisionist viewpoints, as well as authentically replicating the time period itself, while endeavoring to create a worthy theatrical experience, in this case, dramatizing a turning point in gay liberation history complete with flesh and blood characters.
Unfortunately, the characters Mr. Holter draws into his version of the melee are only two-dimensional at best. All ten of them represent a broad spectrum of the possible 1969 street characters, who, may or may not have been present on the scene. There is the cross-dresser, Carson (Nathan Lee Graham) who is mourning the death of Judy Garland; two fast-talking, finger-snapping, street queens, one African-American, Mika (Gregory Haney) and one Puerto Rican, Tano (Arturo Soria), who, like a greek chorus, provides the audience with a running commentary while they watch everyone and everything on the street from their stoop/perch; the disowned and completely vulnerable butch lesbian, Peg (Rania Salem Manganaro); the newbie preppie (Nick Bailey) looking to lose his virginity and an A-Gay (Sean Allan Krill) who is all too willing to accommodate him; Roberta (Carolyn Michelle Smith), a disenfranchised politico-lesbian, Cliff (Ben Diskant), an anti-war draft-dodging drifter, the uptight straight Madeline (Jessica Dickey), who just happens to be the butch lesbian’s hateful sister; the dreaded, bigoted and sadistic policeman (Matthew Greer) and a few musical hippies thrown in for good measure. Though, in all fairness, they may be an inclusive bunch of characters, most of them have no real depth. We certainly care about their plight but we don’t really know enough to care about them.
The talented cast give fully committed performances and there are many heartfelt moments. Nathan Lee Graham is the standout as the cross-dresser who is fierce and funny but when he is reproached after having the courage to appear (in drag) in daylight just to pay his respects at Judy Garland’s funeral, the pain on his face says it all.
The staging is at its best when the actors’ movements are stylized and the strobe-lit bodies morph from provocative dance moves to violent eruptions of anger, rebellion and increasing self-assurance. These moments were more theatrical and more rewarding to this theatergoer than any attempt to recreate, in a realistic fashion, a riot that involved hundreds upon hundreds of angry protestors and sympathizers.
On a positive note, Hit the Wall does introduce a younger theatre audience to an important historical turning point in gay history but the play is misleading because it oversimplifies the period and omits the fact that these characters were living in a repressive society where all homosexuals were considered criminals and where the psychiatric community considered them mentally ill. For a more authentic look at the period and for a deeper understanding of what it meant to be gay in 1969, see the PBS documentary, The Stonewall Uprising or read Stonewall: The Riots That Sparked the Gay Revolution, by David Carter.
Hit the Wall, by Ike Holter; directed by Eric Hoff; presented by Barrow Street Theater, Scott Morfee, Jean Doumanian, Tom Wirtshafter, Patrick Daly, Burnt Umber, Roger E. Kass, Barlor Productions, Starry Night Entertainment, Christian Chadd Taylor, Skandal Theatrical and Marc and Lisa Biales; sets by Lauren Helpern; costumes by David Hyman; lighting by Keith Parham; sound by Daniel Kluger and Brandon Wolcott; music by and music supervision by Dan Lipton; fight director, J. David Brimmer; production stage manager, Bethany Russell; general manager, Amy Dalba and Victoria Gagliano; production supervisor, Production Core. At the Barrow Street Theater, 27 Barrow Street, at Seventh Avenue South, West Village, (212) 868-4444, smarttix.com. Through July 7. Running time: 90 minutes with no intermission.