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Robert Bullen

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Hit the Wall Throws Emotional Punches as It Breaks Down Barriers for Gay Rights

Posted: 04/13/2012 5:10 pm

Hit the Wall, a powerful new play about the Stonewall Uprising produced by the relatively newbie theater company The Inconvenience, is one of those shows everyone in Chicago is talking about. Written by Inconvenience company member Ike Holter and directed by Eric Hoff, the play premiered at Steppenwolf Theatre's Garage Rep Series in February and started gaining buzz following its stellar reviews. Then, the likes of Rosie O'Donnell and Mayor Rahm Emanuel showed up in the 100 seat space to see it. And then the production got extended -- twice. So, I feel so lucky to have finally caught this show before its run ended in just a few short weeks.

What exactly happened on June 28, 1969 when the riots took place outside of Stonewall Inn -- riots that most cite as the trigger for the gay rights movement? "I was there," echoes the ensemble at the top of the show. What was the tipping point in those early hours? Did a queen throw a brick? Did a twink swing a punch at a police officer?

Who can say? The point is it happened -- and Holt examines the events directly leading up to this flash-mob revolution through the fictional, but brutally honest, stories of 10 deeply marginalized people who become unlikely revolutionists.

Among the gang we have Carson (played with stoic beauty by Manny Buckley), a queen who defiantly appears in full drag during the day -- in public -- to honor the late Judy Garland; Peg (Rania Manganaro), a butch but painfully shy lesbian who is stranded both figuratively and literally; Roberta (Daeshawna Cook), a spirited protestor who has started her own cause because the other groups have ousted her; and buddies Milka and Tano (Desmond Gray and Arturo Soria) who spend the day sitting on a stoop while refining their "reads" of passersby.

Each has created a bulletproof exterior to tackle the everyday battle of living gay in a closeted world, and the Stonewall Inn is the only place in town to let down their walls and let their freak flags fly.

Yet, the verge of something big is coming. The threshold of indignation has been hit. And perfect storm of circumstances is brewing just below the surface.

What makes this play such a force is its ability to tell an epic story in a succinct and potent way. Through the economy of character-driven storytelling and explosive staging, Hoff and company prove that it's possible to cover a lot of ground in a 90-minute intermissionless show without sacrificing the weight of the topic at hand. And the raw, angry sounding onstage band gets the blood pumping as you enter the space, and provides the backbeat when things get heated up and the queens start kicking.

The riot scenes are perhaps some of the best staging I've seen in some time. Brutal, emotionally charged and rage filled. So major kudos to fight choreographer Ryan Bourque and the fearless cast.

To counterpoint these explosive moments, there are scenes like the one between the beaten down Peg and her Upper East Side sister Madeline (Mary Williamson). Madeline, who's come to collect her sister from jail following the riot, tells her sister she can become a part of her life again if she just drops the butch drag and acts like a "normal woman." Peg, who's facing eviction and a life of uncertainty, sees an out -- but she can't betray who she is. It's a beautifully written and acted moment that perfectly crystallizes the necessity for this revolution.

I wish everyone could see this play. Unfortunately, the remaining performances are sold out. But some wise producer might consider transferring this production to a commercial run in the city.

 

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