LOS ANGELES – “Revolution starts with a hot night out” is not original with me. It’s the tagline for the West Coast premiere production of a play that originated at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Garage Theatre, then lit up the Barrow St. Theatre in New York City.
The Stonewall Inn, still located at 53 Christopher St. in Greenwich Village, and since 2000 a U.S. National Historic Landmark, gathered all the gender misfits in one place seeking a welcoming place to have a drink, meet likeminded neighbors and friends, and maybe find a partner for the night or a lifetime.
We the audience are immersed right in the epicenter of the Stonewall Rebellion that broke out the night of June 28, 1969, in New York City, the night the collective LGBT community of queers, transvestites and sexual revolutionaries finally said, Enough, we’ve had it with the fascist psychopathic police, the raids, the jails, the blackmail, bribes and payoffs, the violence and beatings, the fines, the prohibitions, the stupid regulations on what we can wear, who we can dance with, who we can love, who we are.
“Hit the Wall” has us sweating out that relentlessly heavy, hot, humid night with this ensemble cast of 13 players, who carry the struggle far out the barroom doors into the streets. The reverberations have been felt ever since in almost every corner of the world.
Not that there weren’t stirrings before and elsewhere. L.A. had its own version of bar riots and demonstrations years before (the Cooper’s Donut riot in 1959) and the actions at the Black Cat Tavern in 1967 in a situation comparable to Stonewall. Several European countries had already decriminalized homosexuality and enjoyed a critically important legal freedom. But a concentration of moment and mood in the waning months of the 1960s – when the hippies were feeling the groove, the Vietnam War was at its height and so were the demonstrations against it, the beloved gay icon Judy Garland had just been buried that day, and that heat, that oppressive heat – blew the top off the boiling, roiling resentment that had been revving up for years.
Playwright Ike Holter has constructed his “remix” of this historic night using a number of archetypal characters: the bulldyke lesbian, the glamour/feminist lesbian, the hippie, the trannie, the newbie (to gay life), the Latino queen, and of course the A-Gay, he of the haughty white straight-acting privileged caste. Throw in a few cops and you’ve got an incendiary potion of chemicals ready to explode.
There are some standout individual performances in this happening, directed with ensemble deftness by Ken Sawyer. Charlotte Gulezian plays the “male-dressing” dyke Peg whose gets severely beaten by the cops for her boldness: In those days, almost incredibly to people today who may have been unaware of these laws, you could be arrested for not wearing at least three items of clothing pertaining to your visible gender. (Parenthetical note: In the early 1970s I once marched with SDS in New Orleans’ French Quarter protesting this very issue.) A very special performance is turned in by Matthew Hancock as Carson, the cross-dressing Judy Garland fan who attracts the attention of Cliff, the hippie (Adam Silver, who also produced). A pair of sparring Latino flirts with lethally cynical attitude are portrayed by Roland Ruiz and Blake Young-Fountain.
These do not seem to be the “types” of which revolutions are made. But that is the point. In one long 95-minute performance without intermission, all the individualism, the unfocused rage, the internalized homophobia, the political naïveté, the misdirected blame, melt in the cauldron of resistance to oppression. The personal elements come together under intense police and political pressure, and a radical movement is born in an unforeseen unity.
Back in the year 1950, in Los Angeles, a gay member of the Communist Party, Harry Hay, established the Mattachine Society (named for the medieval jesters who wore masks to conceal their identity), founded on the premise that gay people were a heretofore unrecognized minority group that needed consciousness, organizational autonomy, and liberation. Expelled from the party as incompatible with its program in those McCarthy years, Hay and company went on to pioneer the gay rights movement. Those years must have been long and unforgiving at the time, milestoned with small and rare, though significant advances, but what is in retrospect so remarkable is that Stonewall occurred less than two decades later, a fairly short span in human history considering the vast social transformation it launched. It was a revolution waiting to happen.
The steamy atmosphere is filled out by a three-piece band performing rockin’ original music by Anna Waronker and Charlotte Caffey.
If you were around at the time, this recreation of that singular night will thrill and gratify you seeing your struggles recognized on the stage. And if you are in need of edification as to what indignities gay people suffered and had to overcome, then you owe it to yourself to get educated. As the playwright Ike Holter says, “Stonewall was one of the defining moments in human rights of the 20th century, and everybody has a dog in that fight.”
There’s no theatrical “fourth wall” tonight!
“Hit the Wall” runs through Oct. 25 , Fridays and Saturdays at 8 pm, Sundays at 7 pm, at the Davidson/Valentini Theatre at the Los Angeles LGBT Center’s Village at Ed Gould Plaza, 1125 N. McCadden Pl., Hollywood. For tickets: www.lalgbtcenter.org/theatre or call 323.860.7300
Photo: Ken Sawyer