Addison — There are plentiful reasons why Ike Holter’s 2012 play Hit the Wall is an audacious choice for Joanie Schultz to introduce herself to WaterTower Theatre’s subscribers and North Texas theater audiences. For starters, it’s about the Stonewall Riots of 1969, which launched the modern LGBTQ rights movement that some might wrongly think concluded when same-gender marriage became legal in every state in 2015. It says she's passionate about social change. Also, the play has the kind of nontraditional narrative structure you don’t see in theaters of WaterTower’s budget and subscriber size in this market.
But there’s an interesting, more subversive message in Schultz’s choice, which is the first mainstage production she directs as WTT’s artistic director, with a title that replaced the previously selected Sunday in the Park with George in the last slot of the 2016-17 season. (It changed when former AD Terry Martin pulled out of directing the Sondheim Pulitzer winner.)
Hit the Wall is about being an outsider. The eight LGBT characters we meet via a series of duets are outsiders several times over, not just as gay people but within various communities subdivided by skin color, class, the gender binary, and blood. As a Chicagoan moving to North Texas—which, let’s be honest, is a whopping cultural shift for a theatermaker—Schultz is an outsider, too. In choosing her, WTT’s board made a bold and necessary decision for a theater that, as of the 2017-18 season that begins in October—the first season selected by Schultz—will be old enough to purchase and drink alcohol.
Neither the play, which closes the 20th season, nor Schultz’s production are the kind of onstage perfection we too often and pointlessly look for. There’s a feather-dusted messiness to it that signals a much-needed shakeup in the North Texas theater scene. Bring it.
With Hit the Wall, Holter could have offered a straight-forward, so to speak, docudrama about what happened on the night of June 27 and early morning June 28, 1969, trying to suss out who among the clubbers threw the first brick in the Greenwich Village nightclub when it was raided by police. That’s what film director Roland Emmerich and playwright/screenwriter Jon Robin Baitz attempted in their 2015 film Stonewall, which received much blowback from the LGBT community because it whitewashed the story so that a white, blond, cisgender gay man was the instigator when history tells us that LGBT people of color, lesbians, drag queens and cross-dressers were prominent among the rioters.
The Hit the Wall character most like that film’s hero is A-Gay (Brandon Whitlock), an attractive, straight-passing, Harvard grad who beds a different man nightly—and knows that everyone knows it, envies him and wants him. He lives in a Greenwich brownstone and isn’t too happy that “snap queen team” of Puetro Rican Tano (Joshua Gonzales) and African-American Mika (Rashaun Sibley) constantly hang on his building’s stoop, where they don’t live and couldn’t afford. For A-Gay, they are a sign of a neighborhood in decline, on multiple levels.
Peg (Kelsey Leigh Ervi) is the “stone butch” lesbian who could pass for a man; Roberta (Camille Monae) is a lesbian hippie always raising awareness for causes fueled by sisterhood and blackness; and Cliff (Garret Storms) is a charismatic, draft-dodging drifter. Newbie (Stephen Rosenberger) has just arrived in the gayborhood, hoping to make any friend in this terrain.
Carson (Walter Lee) is a fascinating character, dressing as a woman in everyday life—and therefore not a drag queen, which denotes dressing as a woman strictly as an entertainer. On this day, she’s classily outfitted in black to mourn the death of Judy Garland, who died a few days earlier on June 22.
Gregory Lush is an intimidating, unnamed Cop with questionable motives until his part in the Stonewall raid. The only character who is unquestionably straight is Madeleine (Jacie Hood Wenzel), Peg’s sister who shows up at the wrong time.
The funeral procession for Judy, long a gay icon—there’s a reason for the slang term “friend of Dorothy”—is important to the idea that gay men were already in a foul mood. It’s also late June in New York, and as the characters frequently remind us when they face the audience with microphones on stands to narrate details of time, setting and temperature like beat poets, it’s hot. As in the mid-to-high 90s, which even Texans who have been to NYC in that kind of heat will tell you is miserable. We’re used to always being air-conditioned, a luxury not as common in the the Big Apple, where the heat brings out sweat, trash odor, the need for less clothing, and agitation.
“Heat like this makes people crazy,” one character says.
When the riot happens in the final third of the 90-minute play, it’s tense and harrowing—a dance party that morphs into revolution. Jason Foster’s lighting, Kellen Voss’ sound and Jeffrey Colangelo’s add to the mayhem.
The bigger discomfort for audiences—and boy, is it needed—comes earlier in the play through the candid conversations between Peg and Roberta, Carson and Cliff, and Tano and Mika. Anyone who’s been in the gay community for any amount of time knows Tano and Mike, especially. They’re the ones being fem-shamed in personal ads (and now, hook-up apps) by the “straight-acting” gays who are more comfortable with heteronormative assimilation. For them, and Carson, the pointed snapping and fierce ’tude is mandatory defense. (See “the library is open” segments on any season of RuPaul’s Drag Race.)
“You have to be bitchy; cause that’s all you have,” Tano snaps at Carson.
Holter’s script is filled with witty humor—a line about Judy’s daughter Liza is priceless—and statements that would work in any political era but seem especially pertinent in 2017 (“there is an inhabitant at the White House using your money to wipe his ass”).
With minimal stage direction, Holt gives the director a lot of room to sculpt and interpret. Schultz stages it like a rock 'n' roll event, with the actors on stage as the audience files in, and bringing out the microphone stands when directly addressing the audience. The effect is fortified by a three-member band on the second level, in view of the audience, on Jocelyn Girigorie’s scenic design that brings creates elements of Christopher and other New York streets. The musical influences of the Mystiks (composer/guitarist Ivan Dillard, who is trans; bassist Lina Reyne; and percussion Gerard Bendiks) range from world beat to shoegaze to Baroque rock, and they are an important character, music driving the madness as much as the heat does.
The ensemble is strong, especially the activist-channeling Monae, freewheeling Storms, and Lee, who is heartbreaking as a cross-dresser wary of trusting anyone. Ervi is effectively guarded and close to the breaking point. Gonzales and Sibley could medal in a synchronized snapping-and-reading event. Given costumer Ryan Matthieu Smith’s vision and Lush’s physical build, tats and mustache, the Cop character could be a leather queen in his other life, and not in a campy Village People way, although his sexuality is never discussed. Rosenberger is least successful, unconvincing in Holter’s description that he “not only knows where the party is; he leads it.”
These characters are indeed outsiders in hetero society, but Holter acknowledges them as outsiders to each other, and to those with whom they might have surface similarities. Roberta, for instance, was ousted by like-minded Black Panthers because she’s gay. Peg is seen being rejected by family when her sister shows up—a reality LGBT people still face, even if it has gotten better.
The LGBT community still has plenty of cliques and in-fighting: gay men who hate lesbians and vice-versa; cis gays who won’t try to understand the many levels of the “T” in LGBT; gays who deny the idea of people being “B,” as if you must be one or the other. At Stonewall in 1969, they came together for a larger cause—and still do when it’s time to rally for marriage equality, adoption rights and the bathroom issue.
Hit the Wall reminds us that differences are important, but division accomplishes nothing; and that as with Schultz herself, outsider voices are needed, vital and welcome.
Like these characters’ constant refrain of “I was there,” it’s important for the spectrum of LGBT people and their allies to “be there.”
» Read our interview with Ike Holter
» Joanie Schultz's latest An Artistic Director Prepares column, about finally feeling at home through the thing she loves best: directing
» With Hit the Wall, WaterTower introduces a new initiative called Intersections, to include discussions, speakers, local band nights and other events. The schedule for the remaining two weeks of this show:
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