“I was there!” roar the eclectic band of 1969 Greenwich Village People who populate Hit The Wall, Ike Holter’s slice-of-Stonewall now getting a daringly staged, thrillingly visceral West Coast Premiere that is, simply put, the next best thing to having actually been “there.” (Take that, Roland Emmerich!)
The events of the June night said to have started the Gay Liberation Movement have, since 1969, become the stuff of legend, tales passed down about the night when gay men, drag queens and butch dykes stood up for the first time to the homophobic NYPD officers who made their daily/nightly lives a living hell.
Propelling the anger that fueled the riots at the Village’s Stonewall Inn were laws so restrictive that New York City bars were forbidden to sell alcohol to gays and lesbians, same-sex couples could be arrested for dancing together, drag was illegal, and (how’s this for ridiculous), a woman could go to jail for not wearing at least three pieces of “feminine” clothing.
And so the queers fought back, and the rest is both history and the stuff of great theater, as Hit The Wall makes abundantly clear at (what better venue?) the Los Angeles LGBT Center.
• Cliff (Adam Silver), the draft-dodging gay stoner who just happens to find himself in the midst of history on this day in June
• Newbie (Jason Caceres), the latest small-town twink to come fresh off the bus, suitcase in hand, in search of his gay identity in the big bad city
• A-Gay (Burt Grinstead), the straight-acting, deeply closeted Wall Streeter in the habit of inviting hot bottoms like Newbie up to his apartment for an afternoon quickie
• Peg (Charlotte Gulezian), the tough-talking butch lesbian who’d rather die than put on even one of those required three pieces of female garb
• Roberta (Shoniqua Shandai), the African-American feminist whose anti-male bias would appear (based on her reaction to Peg) to carry over into the bedroom.
• Madeline (Kristina Johnson), the smartly dressed upper-Eastsider who’d like nothing better than to never again see anyone but her own kind in her posh neighborhood
Presiding over all of the above from their brownstone stoop are sassy Puerto Rican Tano (Roland Ruiz) and his African-American partner in snap Mika (Blake Young-Fountain), the pair of them throwing shade on—and occasionally a come-hither remark to—just about anyone who passes by … with the possible exception of the intimidating homophobic Cop (Donnie Smith) who’d like nothing better than to throw the entire Stonewall Inn clientele in the slammer.
Most significantly of all is black glamazon Carson (Matthew Hancock), whose distress over this afternoon’s Judy Garland funeral has prompted her Judyesque sheath and short bobbed wig … and whom nobody had dare cross on today of all days.
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that each and every one of these characters will interact to life-changing effect over the course of Hit The Wall’s trim 90-minute running time, a good half hour shorter than Emmerich’s upcoming (and already much maligned) big-screen look at Stonewall.
Nor does it take a math whiz to predict that each and every one of these characters will be able to sing out “I Was There” by performance’s end.
As will you, thanks to director Sawyer’s truly immersive staging that puts the audience not only smack dab in the middle of the Greenwich Village neighborhood superbly designed by Desma Murphy but inside the Stonewall Inn itself, and don’t be surprised if, at some point or other, you too find yourself dancing to the beat of all-girl band Johanna Chase, Jennifer Lin, and Nicole Marcus performing original music (and a few songs) written specifically for Hit The Wall’s West Coast Premiere by Anna “That Dog” Waronker and Charlotte “The Go-Gos” Caffey.
If there’s any fault to be found with Holter’s script, it’s simply that 90 minutes isn’t enough time to paint a grand total of ten lead characters in anything but the broadest, albeit skillful and often poetic strokes, all of which places an added responsibility on the shoulders of actors who must create their characters’ back stories and incorporate them between the lines.
Fortunately, director Sawyer and casting directors Beth Rye and Jami Rudofsky could not have come up with a more magnificent ten performers, who not only act the hell out of their roles, they harmonize—and move to Yusuf Nasir’s groovy choreography—to perfection.
From cute stage newbie Caceres’s sweet yet steadily more confident Newbie, to soap-star handsome Grinstead’s deeply conflicted A-Gay, to Ruiz and Young-Fountain’s sexy tank-topped gay male Lucy and Ethel, to L.A. 99-seat-stage treasure Silver’s richly layered drifter, to Smith’s truly frightening yet still human Cop, the men are in expert hands indeed. (Fans of Richard Linklater’s Boyhood will relish getting to see Ruiz—that film’s Enrique—in his L.A. stage debut.)
As for the women, Gulezian’s outwardly tough, inwardly vulnerable Peg, Johnson’s haughty, brittle Madeline, and Shandai’s unapologetically combative Roberta are all characters who turn out to be far more than what initially meets the eye.
Most spectacular of all is the extraordinary Hancock, fresh off his Star-Making-Performance Scenie win (as all-American high schooler Anthony in the Fountain Theatre’s I & You), doing commanding, devastating work as a Stonewall regular who would rather die than be anyone but her fierce and fabulous female self.
Costume designer E.B. Brooks creates pitch-perfect replicas of ‘60s styles that suit each character to a T. Matt Richter’s sensationally dramatic lighting design, Sawyer’s electric realism-enhancing sound design, and Norman Cox’s variety of period-appropriate props add to the production design excitement as well.
And speaking of excitement, fight choreography doesn’t get more in-your-face than the flying fists, slapping palms, pummeling batons, and punishing kicks created by Edgar Landa and realistically executed by pretty much the entire cast at one time or another.
Shaunessy Quinn is assistant director. Kathleen Jaffe is production stage manager and Marx is assistant stage manager. Lisa Sloan is dramaturg. Additional program credits are awarded to Frank Mares (projection design), Patricia Sutherland (production manager), and jack of all trades Adam Earle (assistant lighting design, master electrician, lights, sound, video operator). Hit The Wall is produced by Jon Imparato/Los Angeles LGBT Center and Adam Silver/Sixth Avenue.
Carlis Shane Clark, Jemal David, Tonatiuh Elizarraraz, Amber Gray. Maisie Klompus. Daniel Olson, Jordan Rountree, Emily Kay Townsend, and Wolfie Trausch are understudies.
With the upcoming eponymous Stonewall flick rekindling interest in the history-making events that began on June 27, 1969, particularly among those too young to recall the injustices that prompted the now nearly mythical riots, the time could not be riper for Ike Holter’s electrifying play to hit L.A.
The Los Angeles LGBT Center has one explosive hit on its hands with Hit The Wall.
The Davidson/Valentini Theatre, L.A. Gay & Lesbian Center, The Village at Ed Gould Plaza, 1125 N. McCadden Place, Los Angeles.
September 18, 2105
Photos: Ken Sawyer