Hit the Wall

Michael Van Duzer Reviews - Theater

The riots which broke out at the Stonewall Inn in late June of 1969 were not the first salvo in the Gay Rights movement. But, unlike previous civil disturbances and demonstrations, they did provide a catalyst that encouraged a number of disparate groups to coalesce into an increasingly more cohesive movement.

In its West Coast premiere, Ike Holter’s Hit the Wall delivers a kaleidoscopic vision of the day leading up to the riots. Calling his play a “remix” of history and myth, Holter attempts to depict the broad diversity of the people involved, or on the sidelines of the events that would become the Stonewall riots. In doing so, he embraces the fact that some of the characters his thirteen-member cast portray will feel more like “types” than fully dimensional human beings.  What he manages to show, with more clarity than in any previous dramatization I know, are the sharp divisions that existed in the nascent community.

Ken Sawyer’s powerful and passionate production is also an immersive affair. Audience members line up outside the Davidson/Valentini Theatre and are only allowed onto the vibrant dance floor when the bouncer nods. Once inside, the cast members and audience mix and dance until Carson (Matthew Hancock) makes an entrance in full drag singing “Over the Rainbow,” a nod to Judy Garland whose body lay in state uptown. Seats are found and the audience, scattered around the playing area, settles back to watch the tale unfold.

Sawyers’ adroit direction fills the stage with action and brings cohesion to the episodic nature of the script. He cleverly integrates the original music by Anna Waronker & Charlotte Caffey and, perhaps most impressively, manages to build increasing tension for a climax every audience member knew before entering the theater. In this, he is aided by Edgar Landa’s brutally effective fight choreography.

Sawyer also leads his committed ensemble cast to create a host of memorable performances. Hancock’s Carson dons a protective veneer along with his lipstick and wig in order to sit outside Campbell’s Funeral Home in a silent tribute to Garland. But life intrudes on Carson’s plans and Hancock perfectly conveys the hope and the devastation that the day brings. Charlotte Gulezian’s Peg also adopts a tough exterior but allows us to glimpse the vulnerable woman inside. Peg embodies the spirit of the struggle as she survives the very real horrors of the night with her spirit intact and spoiling for a fight. Shoniqua Shandai’s earthy and belligerent Roberta is compelling as the militant feminist whose rough-hewn views are too radical for the established movement. Adam Silver (who also produced) is simply captivating as the warmhearted draft dodger who is discovering that his sexuality may be more fluid than he imagined. While Donnie Smith’s Cop gets little time to show anything but villainy, he does it with a scary intensity that we still recognize in today’s zealots.

One could quibble about shaved bodies and a few other historical inaccuracies, but it seems petty in a production that gets so much right about the complex and contradictory feelings of the time. The fear of being noticed, the loneliness of seeming invisible, the terror of being beaten down, and, most of all, the sheer exhilaration of fighting to claim your identity and your pride. Hit the Wall is an experience to savor.

Davidson/Valentini Theatre   September 18 – October 25, 2015   www.lalgbtcenter.org/theatre