Is it possible for “Hit The Wall,” a new play, to say something fresh about the Stonewall riots that sparked the modern gay rights movement, now that the president of the United States has mentioned Stonewall in his inaugural address…
“…We, the people, declare today that the most evident of truths—that all of us are created equal—is the star that guides us still, just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall…”
and every year during Gay Pride Day, members of the cloth conduct a religious service in front of the still-existing Christopher Street bar the Stonewall Inn, and anybody who was involved in the riots there in June, 1969 is treated with reverence? Stonewall has already inspired so many works of art and history, including:
“Stonewall” the best history book I’ve read about the events, by distinguished historian and playwright Martin Duberman
the riveting documentaries “Before Stonewall” and “Stonewall Uprising,” both now on DVD
Rikki Beadle-Blair’s award-winning 2007 play Stonewall
Tina Landau’s 1994 play “Stonewall: Night Variations,” produced by En Garde Arts in a spectacular multimedia presentation with 60 performers outdoors on Pier 25 in Tribeca
Now Ike Holter’s play about the days of the Stonewall riots, “Hit The Wall,” which was reportedly a hit in Chicago, has taken up residence at the Barrow Street Theater, which is just around the corner from the Stonewall Inn. There is something simultaneously apt and arrogant in the move. In retrospect, given the crowded landscape of works on Stonewall, “Hit The Wall” was bound to be a disappointment, and in that it doesn’t disappoint. But there are strengths in the production that somewhat offset the flaws.
The greatest flaw is that Holter has created stock, static characters of limited depth and little dimension. Some of their very names are a tip-off: “Newbie” and “A-Gay.” But even the vividly named Tano and Mika are a Latino and African-American “snap queen team” of the sort spoofed ages ago in “In Living Colour” skits by Damon Wayans and David Alan Grier playing gay movie critics. Carson is a black drag queen mourning Judy Garland’s death outside the funeral taking place early in the day. There are assorted hippies in headbands, buttons and beads, and fringe-leather vests like refugees from the latest “Hair” revival. Peg is a butch lesbian, who is patronized by her prim, prejudiced sister Madeline and – laziest stereotype of all – mocked, abused and viciously beaten by a New York City cop. But nearly all the interactions, not just the violent or abusive ones, feel like match-ups dictated by the intrusive hand of the playwright. Few of the characters seem to breathe the air on their own.
Now, one can make some arguments in defense of this approach. The playwright is making a political point: Each of the characters represents a different type of person who had “hit the wall” – frustrated in their day-to-day living by societal oppression – before the liberation that the Stonewall riots unleashed. If Larry Kramer was able to make his political points in “The Normal Heart” and still present fleshed-out characters, Holter offers something that Kramer did not – a reminder that many of the people who sparked the movement were (and largely continue to be) at the margins of society – street people, people of color, the transgendered – people who were arguably shunted aside by the formal organizations that sprung up in Stonewall’s wake. Seen in this political light, the play is not really about the characters; it’s about the audience. As evident in plays like Anne Nelson’s “The Guys” after September 11th and Clifford Odets’ “Waiting for Lefty” during the Great Depression, theater is better than any other art form in gathering a community to share in memories and grief and outrage and celebration and struggle.
That helps explain why the most effective scenes of “Hit The Wall” are the nearly non-verbal ones that begin half-way through the play — first of the dancing at Stonewall and then the rioting (Perhaps not accidentally, the dancing and the rioting resemble one another.) These theatrical moments depend on director Eric Hoff’s staging, helped along by Keith Parham’s strobe lighting, Daniel Kluger and Brandon Wolcott’s sound design, billowing stage smoke, and by those hippies hanging out in the Christopher Street park, who turn out to be a band, who play composer Dan Lipton’s original propulsive, bongo-inflected rock music.
Given the reliance on stereotypes – archetypes, if you prefer – the stand-out performances are all the more impressive, especially Nathan Lee Graham as Carson, the drag queen who struggles for dignity and decorum before exploding, and Rania Salem Manganar as Peg. Arturo Soria and Gregory Haney as Tano and Mika deliver some of Holter’s most difficult riffs as if somebody might actually have said (for example) “…no matter how much a rooster peacocks he’s still just another shrill-screaming cock on the block hawking rocks dropping shop wearing some mock ugly-frock begging for slop.”
Holter has an indisputable way with words, infusing “Hit The Wall” with the elevated diction of a poet and the freewheeling rhythms of the street. It marks him as a playwright to watch. But is this artistry a sufficient substitute for research and character development and the power of plain speech? There is a rare moving moment at the end of “Hit The Wall” when each of the characters, in turn, says “I was there.” But Holter, who is in his 20s, wasn’t there, and it shows.
Hit The Wall
Barrow Street Theater
27 Barrow Street
Written by Ike Holter
Directed by Eric Hoff, set by Lauren Helpern, costumes by David Hyman, lighting by Keith Parham, original music by Dan Lipton
Cast: Nick Bailey, Jessica Dickey,Ben Diskant, Nathan Lee Graham,Matthew Greer,Gregory Haney,Sean AllanKrill,Rania Salem Manganaro, Jonathan Mastro, Ray Rizzo, Carolyn Michelle Smith, Arturo Soria, Indigo Street
Running time: 90 minutes with no intermission
Ticket prices: $35 to $75. Student rush: $20