Addison — Chicago-based playwright Ike Holter, 32, has several plays under his belt now, including Hit the Wall, Sender, Exit Strategy, Prowess and Get Your House in Order, the latter having just closed its world premiere by the Roustabouts, of which Holter is an ensemble member. In March, he won a prestigious Windham-Campbell Prize, which comes with a $165,000 no-strings-attached award.
Hit the Wall, his best-known work, deals with the Stonewall riots on June 27, 1969, which started the modern gay rights movement. The play, which premiered in 2012 at the Steppenwolf Garage Theatre, has had productions in Chicago, New York, Los Angeles and Michigan, and has its first in the South at WaterTower Theatre, where it opens tonight.
The selection is a bold move for new artistic director Joanie Schultz, who put this title in for the work originally set to close the 2016-17 season, Sunday in the Park with George, after previous artistic director Terry Martin had to bow out of directing that musical.
Hit the Wall focuses on 10 characters imagined by Holter at the Stonewall, all of them claiming they were there, who run the range of the LGBT spectrum. Schultz directs, and the cast includes Kelsey Leigh Ervi, Joshua Gonzales, Walter Lee, Gregory Lush, Camille Monae, Stephen Rosenberger, Rashaun Sibley, Garret Storms, Jacie Hood Wenzel and Brandon Whitlock. Local alternative rock band The Mystiks performs original music in the show.
We chatted with Holter—who is in town for the opening—about the play.
With this production WaterTower also begins a new initative called Intersections, with community conversations, music and other events scheduled with each production. The schedule for the Hit the Wall Intersections is at the bottom of this interview.
TheaterJones: What hooked you on the idea of a play about Stonewall?
Ike Holter: I think it’s still an undiscovered and unfleshed out part of our history. I didn’t learn about it in school. There was like two minutes on it in history class, and I always wanted to know more. I had to do my own research.
I wanted to put that history on stage. I thought there was a lot of undiscovered drama in it. We usually get the cis white gay story, but there were lots of brown and black people and transgender people.
Even in contemporary gay theater, we mostly see white cis gay male stories. There are great trans and lesbian stories out there, and LGBT of color stories—plays like Philip Dawkins’ Charm and Robert O’Hara’s Bootycandy. Will we start seeing more of those?
Everyone has a viewpoint and should be allowed to express that. It’s our gatekeepers finally letting other people into the building.
Are the characters in Hit the Wall based on historical characters?
No. There are some archetypes. But they are not based on the people that were there. I think by doing real characters you do a disservice to people who were actually there. I wanted to do my own stories. I stuck to my own timeline.
Without giving anything away, you included a cop character who has a different viewpoint than the other characters.
I’m an out queer man—I always think of what the opposition thinks.
There have been multiple productions of this play in Chicago, New York and elsewhere. Have you made changes after seeing other productions?
It’s not published yet, so I’ve clarified some things. It was really about streamlining it to a tight 90 minutes.
Do you run into LGBT theatergoers who don’t know the story of Stonewall?
Yes. We did it in New York, and I was smoking outside and a guy started talking to me, and he thought it was made up—and we were two blocks from the Stonewall Inn. It was very interesting. A lot of people have a general idea of what happened, but this play tries to put a face on it. I met people who were at Stonewall, and they gave me in-person historical context for it.
What kinds of questions do you get in talkbacks?
The questions are never the same thing, which I love. It’s not about the writer, the director or the people who made it. It’s about the experience the audience has.
Was there a character you wrote who surprised you after you finished their arc?
I think the character that surprised me most was the band, and the way the actors moved around it. As I was writing it I realized how important the music would be. In every production, I encourage the musicians to create their own music. It’s about them having free rein.
There are many more black voices being produced at more theaters around the country. Do you feel that producers and artistic directors are giving these writers an equal shot in the regional circuit?
I think when I was coming in, I was told there was a “slot” for certain work. The black slot, the woman slot, the queer slot. Sometimes those things could be the same person. I think there’s this atmosphere that can and will be broken. There are voices we’re not used to hearing, and they’re being picked not because it’s tokenism, but because of their work. It’s happening more and more, but still less than 10 percent of plays produced are by people of color, and women of color are less than half of that. It’s happening but there’s still work to do. I don’t think it’s anything we can be proud of yet.
August 2 – KNOWING WHO I AM – A Conversation with LGBTQ Youth
August 4 – Local Band Night featuring Mercury Rocket
August 6 – Conversation with the Artists
August 9 – Conversation with the Artists
August 10 – NO MORE WATCHING – A Conversation about Advocacy and Activism
August 11 – Local Band Night featuring Rat Rios
August 12 (matinee) – CHANGING ATTITUDES – A Conversation with Parents of LGBTQ Youth
August 13 – QUEER STUDIES – A Conversation with Dr. Susan Harper, queer historian
August 16 – DEFINING MOMENTS – A Conversation about Life During the 1960’s
August 18 — Local Band Night featuring Secrecies
August 19 (matinee) – Community Conversation
August 20 – Conversation with the Artists