Ike Holter’s Hit the Wall owes more to the 1995 film Stonewall than to the actual event. It’s a fine human drama about a community who on the summer of 1969 was pushed to the breaking point, igniting a revolution that changed the gay and lesbian community in America. It also avails itself of an impressive cast. It’s just not the play that such a major event deserves.
The play starts hours before the rioting begins, it is a hot June day, Judy Garland is being memorialized, cops have made a weekly habit of raiding the few places that are open to the community, essentially it is one of those days in which history happens.
We are introduced to the cast of endless characters in quick succession: Roberta, the black revolutionary “dyke” too extreme for the woman’s movement, not extreme enough for the black panthers, Tano and Mika, two finger snapping, fast talking gays that sit on the stoop of the street they have claimed as their own, Carson, the “incredible” drag queen, Peg, the blossoming lesbian looking for her place in the world, Cliff, the open-minded and open-hearted traveler, A-Gay, a closeted, successful man in the neighborhood who trolls for sex, picking up young boys in the most efficient manner ever staged and his latest conquest Newbie, who for lack of a better word is a… newbie.
The characters come together, and spend a hot day crisscrossing through each other’s lives, flirting, falling in love, speaking of revolution, attempting to gain acceptance, stealing each other’s marijuana until several different events lead them to the Stonewall on that faithful night, where horrific events get them angry and then rioting. It is a lot to happen, and because it happens in 90 minutes, we only get sketches of these characters rather than fleshed out wholes.
The play succeeds and fails on equal terms, it soars when Holter lets himself take metaphorical flight, with an enviable elevated style that aches to break into heated rhythms. It is here that the play promises to burst the doors of convention and become an epic poem, and his poetry pulls at the heart with thrilling urgency. It however stumbles along the way in barely sketched scenes that do not drive the action of the play to its conclusion.
The characters are smart, quotable, even sassy, but there is not enough historical accuracy to give me a sense of the reality they were living under, nor do I get a sense of what some of them really wanted, in this case, it is up to the actors to rescue them from becoming clichés.
The same is true of director Eric Hoff, who handles the more elevated moments of the play with extreme efficiency, the riot is well choreographed, and I certainly do not envy those actors that fight call; but the more traditional scenes have a sense of inhibition that makes them feel theatrically conventional. He should have been more uninhibited and surrendered himself over to Holter’s poetic power.
The cast is uniformly excellent, Gregory Haney and Arturo Soria, as Mika and Tano, dive into their characters with a joy that is infectious, Rania Salem Manganaro is a powerhouse as Peg, Sean Allan Krill plays A-Gay with an uncomfortable creepiness that borders on hot and Benjamin Diskant and Nathan Lee Graham become the beating heart of the play, as Cliff and Carson, Diskant’s first scene with Graham is so beautifully written it is almost Shakespearean and his request to hover in the presence of the “incredible” and future Molly Manelli is purely electric. Graham is given the best role in the play and he runs away with it. It is a performance that deserves to be seen.
Ultimately, I left the theatre feeling that this play about Gay Liberation needed to be liberated itself. It wanted to be set free and rock us out. At its core it was much like the characters in the play, it was suppressing its true self, it should have embraced its poetry and shaken us to the core -- in this particular manifestation, it merely stepped out of the closet to shake our hands.
Still, I cannot wait to see what Mr. Holter writes next. He is a gift to our theatrical community.