June 27, 1969, was a swelteringly hot day in New York City, but in many ways, it was just like any other day. Word had just hit that Judy Garland had died in London, and there was a pall cast over the “Friends of Dorothy” making their ways through life in Greenwich Village — a tough life already, at that. It was less than 50 years before same-sex marriage was recognized as a federal constitution right, and yet New York City law forbade men from wearing more than three articles of “women’s clothing” (and vice versa) or risk arrest. People were upfront with their homophobia, and in the clear majority. Gay culture was trying to assert itself in the only ways it knew how — bitchy shade-throwing catcalls from flouncy, defiant Latinos; dignified trans women cowed into subservience so as not to draw the attention of the cops, but still going out in public in pumps and a smart A-line; tense dykes hoping their “tom-boy” demeanor might make them palatable to dashiki-wearing activists. There was a code, and there were codes (penal, social). And it just so happened this night was not the night to be enforcing any of them.
Of course, we mostly all know what happened after midnight that night, as a raid on the Stonewall Inn triggered four nights of rioting … and sparked the modern gay rights movement. The history of the movement, and even the factual details of that night, are not really the subject of Hit the Wall, receiving its regional debut now at WaterTower Theatre. Playwright Ike Holter leaves the facts to the historians (he even makes a refrain of the claim “I was there,” which, if all such assertions were accurate, would make the Stonewall Inn roughly the side of Yankee Stadium). Holter is aiming for something more important than reality — he’s aiming for truth.
Because the truth is, all of us were there, in spirit if not body. We owe a lot to those outsiders (whoever they really were) who took a stand. The scenes that play out in Hit the Wall register because they are so familiar, or at least feel so possible, as much in 2017 as in 1969. So far away, and yet so close.
The play itself has some structural issues; I’m not a huge fan of the “multiple narrator” technique of having virtually every cast member break the fourth wall and address the audience in the serious tone of an sex-ed film strip, or the use of repetition to lend an air of poetic motif. But most of those concerns drift away once the production — a dazzling, uninterrupted 85 minutes — gets rolling.
The cast is small but efficiently used; you get a sense for the tumult and anger from just a handful of actors (only one, Gregory Lush, plays a cop — a vastly disproportionate ratio, to be sure). But Joanie Schultz — WaterTower’s new artistic director, making her North Texas debut — has assembled a crackerjack ensemble of some of the best theater artists around: Walter Lee as the cross-dressing Carson; Garret Storms as the good-natured vagabond; Kelsey Leigh Ervi as the lesbian as buttoned-up emotional as her flannel shirt; and Lush, whose utility at moving from playing gay to gay-bashing makes him one of our most protean actors.
Hit the Wall is a big-shouldered play to make your local premiere with, and Schultz proves herself accomplished at both challenging audiences and delivering the goods.