MARY C. CUSACK
The Stonewall riots in New York in 1969 were a vital part of the gay rights movement. Police frequently raided gay clubs in Greenwich Village, and patrons grew accustomed to the rigmarole of queuing and producing ID.
Those who did not conform to gender norms were physically inspected and risked arrest if they did not wear clothing that matched the sex assigned to them at birth. On a hot June night, guests of the Stonewall Inn and a growing crowd of their peers decided enough was enough and the streets erupted.
It’s the setting for Ike Holter’s play “Hit the Wall,” the latest production from the MSU College of Arts and Letters Theater Department. Holter’s script is a fictionalized version of the first night of the riots, because – as the narrators frequently remind the audience – “reports of what happened next are not exactly clear”. The characters are not actual people from the historical event, but represent various archetypes from the time. Stars include radical lesbian Roberta (Kamryn Sarratt), elegant drag queen Carson (Ural Grant) and naive gay virgin Newbie (Jameson Patrona).
The sharpest dialogue is delivered by the block’s “Beavis and Butthead” bitch, Tano and Mika (Oscar Quiroz and Justin Harmon). This slacker duo of daytime drinkers sit in languorous judgment of everyone who walks past them, their biting remarks hitting target after target until Carson struts into the scene. She and Tano engage in a pointed exchange akin to a contemporary rap battle. Quiroz and Grant’s performances are impeccable and fun.
The strange but sweet relationship between Carson and the refractory hippie Cliff (Bennett Barber) is a weak element of the scenario. It seems that Holter was keen on including as many archetypes as possible – and that relationship is a bit of a stretch.
The piece is 90 minutes long, and the pace at first as slow as clockwork on a scorching summer day, adding to the frenzy of an exuberant dance that celebrates the joy of being your authentic self, ne if only for a few moments. Of course, this is short-lived, as the Stonewall Inn comes under attack, led by vicious cop Alex (Christopher Eastland). In civilian clothes during the day, Alex from Eastland is a cobra, hypnotizing his victims with a calm menace before striking. In uniform, he is the embodiment of a real racist and homophobic pig.
At first meek, desperate and lonely, Peg (QueenMakeeda Taylor) emerges as the most important character in the play. She is tested again and again, but no matter how much easier life would be if she simply complied, she is determined to maintain her identity. Holter incorporates a theory about what started the riot – the abuse of a particular lesbian by the police, as Peg fights her arrest and screams for support.
The most striking scene occurs between Peg and her sister Madeline (Mona Eldashoury). Peg is estranged from her family. The well-meaning Madeline offers him an olive branch: medical help, housing and a relationship with his niece. Peg only has to dress like a woman and behave like a heterosexual to earn that security. Madeline obviously cares about Peg, but lacks the empathy to understand Peg’s sexuality. Madeline begs “can’t you just hold back?” This line is particularly overwhelming and chillingly prescient in light of the Florida Legislature’s recent passage of the “Don’t Say Gay” bill.
“Hit the Wall” is a relevant and important work of art. The characters frequently state “I was there”, and while the audience can’t go back in time to be at Stonewall, this experience is the next best thing to being there.
“Hit the Wall”
Until March 27
7:30 p.m. Tuesday to Thursday
8 p.m. Friday & Saturday
2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday
750 E. Shaw Lane, East Lansing