It is a daunting task putting a show like this into words -- fitting it all into this one review. Too often stories like this are passed over, forgotten, and made ‘unclear’, but when one person spreads the word we keep the memories alive. However, the fight for equality is still ongoing, and as the community moves towards its future we must remember the lessons of the past. Struggling to find acceptance in the world of 1969, members of the gay community in Greenwich Village, New York break out in riots of chaos and passion, and although reports of those nights in particular are ‘unclear’ we are exposed to those who stand up loud and proud, screaming, “ I WAS THERE!”
The action focuses on one night within the week of the Stonewall Inn Riots, June 27-28, 1969, the same night in which the city suffered some of the hottest days that summer and the funeral of idol Judy Garland. Following several intertwining stories, the play exposes the discrimination against gays at this time and shares those souls who were brave enough to speak out at the boiling point.
The Barrow Street Theatre, which has the home field advantage of being located in the historic Greenwich Village, provides an intimate arena stage. Aesthetic distance is non-existent as the audience becomes both participants and observers in this slice of history. The enclosed space allows for raw vibe that surrounds the audience and makes them feel as though they themselves are knee deep in the danger that surrounds them. The stage is set in Christopher Park and inside the Stonewall Inn. It is dressed with two double doors, back lit with a red wash. Two side-by-side windows with an amber backlight and blinds and a classic 1960’s sign that reads “Stonewall Inn Restaurant”.
The lighting fixtures remain general for most of the show, the design reflecting the underlying themes of seclusion, discrimination, and isolation with a rustic practical light above the inn’s entrance and within the inn – serving as police headlights bright, unfiltered lights blind the audience and add to the authentic sense of fear of persecution that seeps in and light focused on specific acting areas as they are in use. A prime example of this simple but effective design is the “Bathroom” scene, in which two characters are tortured and sexually molested. The soft, dull wash of the lights only adds to the jarring experience of witnessing such an event. Yet, the “riot” sequence is when this light design really shines, (get the pun?). Using colors similar to those used in an underground club -- saturated blues, reds, and purples, this scene provided a chaotic atmosphere that added a sense of freedom and was topped off by a strobe light which helped emphasis movement within the show.
Carolyn Michelle Smith opens the show as Roberta, an outspoken women’s rights activist with a commanding presence. A proud “dyke” who believes in owning her labels Roberta provides the initial introduction to the rhythmic language of the play. Smith posses a vocal quality that not only sounds supported by is also inviting, which as the opening of the show remains a most important factor. As she becomes more intertwined within the show Roberta becomes a key voice in this machine and Smith does wonderfully.
A true compliment to the contemporary vibe of the show lies within Arturo Soria (Tano) and Gregory Haney (Mika). These two partners in crime offer quick wit and a modern tonality in their language which helps to propel the characters and action forward. Soria, who is reprising his original role from the world premiere of “Hit the Wall” in Chicago, and Haney have a truthful and raw quality. Both actors prove to explore a deep space within their characters of how at this time one’s safety is always in jeopardy. Yet, in an otherwise serious drama, Soria and Haney offer a comic relief as well as a dramatic performance that keeps the audience invested.
Nick Bailey offers a fresh innocence to the cast as Newbie. Bailey plays the new kid on the block, a rebel without a cause, a young man who learns to be what he is. “YOU WERE THERE—THERE WAS MUSIC EVERYWHERE … EVERYTHING I JUST SAID IS EXACTLY WHAT HAPPENED.” Throughout it all, Bailey offers a perspective of a young man comfortable with who he is. The theme of hiding in not apparent in the Newbie, on the contrary, a nude streak in the middle of the “riot” scene points toward the opposite end of the spectrum. Bailey is brave and a joy to watch.
In direct opposition to Bailey’s innocence comes Nathan Lee Graham’s character Carson. With the air of someone who has experienced much, Carson gives out a fragile air yet surrounds herself with a strong persona. Carson is a cross dresser, and on this night, the night of her idol’s funeral, Carson dreams of saying goodbye in her true self. Yet, with persecution and disdain around every corner she is forced to hide. “LOOK AT ME.” Graham transforms into a tragic character that undergoes great suffering – her suffering becomes one’s own as the audience is drawn into to Carson’s very real struggle. One is able to ride this emotional, turbulent, rollercoaster with a sense of great sadness. Graham’s work is good and it shows.
Peg, a “stone butch” lesbian, played by Rania Salem Manganaro, offers a look into the true unheard horrors of those nights. Manganaro puts forth a vulnerable young lesibian who is just looking for a way to make it on her own. Surrounded by the same discrimination engulfing her peers Peg is the first to speak out against the forces that suppress her. “NO MORE WATCHING.” Her spiritual and physical trails not only draw the audience in, but they also drag the audience down into the dark pit that most of these characters are forced to deal with in the week of these famous riots. Manganaro delivers a memorable performance that will stick with her audience for years to come.
Rounding out the cast are the incredibly talented Jessica Dickey (Madeline), Ben Diskant (Cliff), Matthew Greer (Alex McArthur), and Sean Allan Krill (A-Gay). Also, providing life underneath the show is the Stonewall Band which includes Jonathan Mastro, Ray Rizzo, and Indigo Street. In an ensemble based show each character plays an intricate part in telling this incredible story. “I COULD NEVER LOVE YOU ONCE I KNEW – WHEN DID WE LOSE YOU?” “YOU DIDN”T LOSE ME, NOT ONCE. YOU LEFT ME!” “IT’S NOT OVER.” “CAN’T STOP, WON’T STOP.” “OUT OF THE CLOSET, INTO THE STREETS.”
Yet, every show is only as good as its language. Holter provides a rhythmic, contemporary poetry in his dialogue that sets “Hit The Wall” apart from all the others. A modern tonality flows throughout this incredible production and its cast as they explore “reading” each other. “Reading”, according to Nathan Lee Graham, is a duel, a battle with words – an honorable combat between worthy opponents. However, along with “reading”, the music of the language gives it life and its poetic scheme lends a raw reality to this 1960’s atmosphere.