Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
The Stonewall Inn was viewed by some to be the epitome of a New York gay bar, circa 1969. For one thing, it was one of the few gay venues that dancing. Moreover, it was heavily frequented by those on the outer edges of the gay world: runaway gay youth who slept in nearby Washington Square Park; highly effeminate gay men; deeply butch lesbians; and gays of color. In some ways, its diversity could be seen as a step toward the rainbow becoming the emblem of the LGBT movement.
Playwright Ike Holter is a Minneapolis native, now based in Chicago. Hit the Wall was his break-out play, premiering in 2012 at the Steppenwolf Theatre Garage and earning a place on the Chicago Tribune's list of ten best plays that year. Successful New York and Los Angeles runs followed. Holter's authentic dialogue and weaving together of very different lives that share an essential common thread, bring this world to vivid life. Its "day in the life" panorama of ten people crossing paths outside the Stonewall, on a Christopher Street stoop, and in nearby Sheridan Square, builds up to the high-pressure night that became the catalyst for seismic societal change.
All of the characters are fictional, but several are modeled after individuals who came to prominence in the movement after Stonewall. In particular, Stormé DeLarverie, a masculine presenting lesbian activist, appears to be the model for Peg, and outspoken African-American drag queen Marsha P. Johnson is the inspiration for Carson. Other characters representative of those in and around Stonewall are Mika and Tano, effeminate boys who travel down from Harlem to sit on a stoop all day, quaffing drinks from bottles in brown paper bags and talking trash about the passersby; Roberta, a soulful leaflet-distributing activist; Cliff, a long-haired draft dodger; handsome A-Gay, who need only cast a seductive glance and say "Hey" to a guy he desires to have said guy follow him to his bedroom; and Newbie, a kid fresh from small town anywhere trying to figure out how he fits into this world, agog like Dorothy in Oz.
Speaking of Oz, there is a popular conception that the Stonewall Riots were precipitated, in part, by the raw wounds felt by many in the gay community following the death of beloved gay icon Judy Garland. Garland died of a drug overdose just six days before the riots. While there is no documented evidence with which to determine cause and effect, Holter includes Garland as a backdrop to Hit the Wall, with several references by characters, and in musical selections sung by Garland among those played by onstage DJ (and sound designer) Yoni Tamang. The music mostly includes songs from the era, especially those with a good dance rhythm. In addition to Tamang (who has no lines, but whose presence is felt throughout the play) are two more essential characters: a policeman, who makes no secret of his hatred for the men and women he pummels during the raid; and Madeline, Peg's sister who begs her to give up this "thing" and come home, where she will get the help she needs to be "normal."
Director Teresa Mock does a masterful job of presenting the numerous characters, intersecting storylines, and a mood of constantly rising tension, leavened with barbed humor, mostly courtesy of Mika and Tano's running commentary. While someone comments that all those who say "I was there" when Stonewall broke out couldn't possibly have been there, Mock creates a sense of verisimilitude that makes the audience feel we truly are there. The staging of the moment when the riot erupts is absolutely riveting, and the riot itself is depicted with almost balletic movement, which does not keep the horror of what occurred from being felt.
Mock has the benefit of working with a terrific ensemble. Probably best known among them is Ricky Morisseau (the narrator in Park Square's recent Rocky Horror Show), who plays Carson, imbedding her with dignity and strength, yet putting her vulnerability on full view. Carson is the central heart of the play, the one who seems to understand the full scope of the impending fight; through Morisseau's performance we see her mix of hope and terror as she faces the inevitable. Michael Terrel Brown as Mika and Domino D'Lorion as Tano are a perfect pair, hilariously finishing each other's lines with a finger snap, dishing out back and forth banter with jaded sarcasm, but still harboring fears and anger that weigh heavily upon them.
Nora Rickey is superb as she depicts Peg's transition from a tentative young woman just trying to be her authentic self to a towering voice calling for action from those who stand on the sidelines and watch. Asher Edes conveys the elation of Newbie, an open book inviting his new life to write all over his pages, and Ben Resman is believably despicable as the vicious cop. Natavia Lewis passionately conveys Roberta's tough-black-sister attitude, while Nick Manthe as Cliff and Martino Mayotte as A-Gay both give credence to their characters' place in the ecosystem of the street. Only Jillia Pessenda's Madeline disappoints, seeming like a cartoon as Peg's uptight and clueless sister.
Nickey Robo dresses all of these characters with a keen sense of what 1969, particularly in this corner of the world, looked like. No stage designer is creditedthe set consists of a DJ table, a cocktail bar, and a stoop. Snem DeSellier's lights this basically bare stage to keep us in tune with the retreat of day into night and the break of day the next morning, and the accompanying human transit from light to darkness, with the renewal of light as a sign of hope.
Happily, there is good reason for hope when we take stock of the enormous progress in LGBT rights, including a well-regarded openly gay candidate for president of the United States. The courage and suffering of men and women fifty years ago, and since then, are important parts of our shared history. It is crucial to remember what those days were like, to celebrate success as well as to face unresolved issues and ward off the risk of losing ground. Mixed Precipitation provided a first-rate opportunity to feel the pulse of that history in this moving, beautifully staged production of Hit the Wall. Let's hope they can marshal the resources to bring it back and reach wider audiences, and to build on this great success with more of the same. And of course, keep those grandly silly Picnic Operetta's coming.
Hit the Wall, a production of Mixed Precipitation played November 14-17. 2019, at Southern Theater, 1420 Washington Avenue S., Minneapolis MN. For information on Mixed Precipitation go to www.mixedprecipitation.org.
Playwright: Ike Holter; Director: Teresa Mock; Costume Design: Nickey Robo; Lighting Design: Snem DeSellier; Sound Design: Yoni Tamang; Fight Choreographer: David P. Schneider; Intimacy Coordinator: Shae Palic; Props: Windy Fleischaker, Paul Mock, Brandon Ricigliano; Stage Manager: Jiccarra Hollman.
Cast: Michael Terrel Brown (Mika), Domino D'Lorion (Tano), Asher Edes (Newbie), Natavia Lewis (Roberta), Nick Manthe (Cliff), Martino Mayotte (A-Gay), Ricky Morisseau (Carson), Jillia Pessenda (Madeline), Ben Resman (Cop), Nora Rickey (Peg).