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On the eve of the annual Charlotte Pride Festival & Parade, a series of LGBTQ+ events spread across the city in the coming week, Queen City Concerts has chosen a perfect moment to commemorate the Stonewall Riots of 1969, a watershed moment for gay liberation and empowerment. Best known for their resourceful reductions of big musicals to a more bare-bones concert format, Queen City has previously shattered their own template with a fine script-in-hand production of Tony Kushner's Angels in America, Parts 1 and 2. Three months later, after a return to form with Diana: The Musical late last month, the company has shown us that Angels wasn't a fluke, staging the local premiere of Ike Holter's Hit the Wall, a 2012 play with music that premiered in Holter's hometown of Chicago before director Eric Hoff restaged his original Steppenwolf Garage production with a New York cast. That Off-Broadway production opened in the spring of 2013 at the Barrow Street Theater, not far from Christopher Park in Greenwich Village, where much of the original action went down.
Directing this concert version at The Arts Factory, J. Christopher Brown isn't quite as resourceful or ambitious as he was with Angels in utilizing projections and costumes. Scenery and props are also less lavish, and there are no stage directions at all read aloud. With a rowdy rock trio roaring from one corner of the black box space, the experience remained richly visceral, though our awareness of where we are or who is speaking was sometimes delayed. We get an abbreviated staircase for the proverbial sidewalk stoop, where the "Snap Queen Team" of Tano and Mika hang out, and a couple of chairs occasionally appear. Projections could have transported us inside the Stonewall Inn gay bar, but we only get the exterior, while a lamppost or a park bench could have transported us to Christopher Park more emphatically. It doesn't take long to get the gist after scenes at these locations begin, but who is telling us in the opening tableau that "The reports of what happened next are not exactly clear?" Without a simple cop's uniform on actor Nick Southwick, it takes a long while before we know how to digest this declaration.
Of course, a long while in a production that zipped through Holter's script in less than 90 minutes wasn't uncomfortably long. What Christopher continued to do extremely well was cut down on key moments when actors read from their scripts. For most of the production, actors were off-book and the booklets they clutched served as reminders of their cues rather than reading material. We were aware of the scripts onstage, but the flow of the action and the actors' lively energy grabbed nearly all our attention. If anything, the occasional peep at a script reminded us how quickly and thoroughly this cast had mastered its essence with just a few rehearsals.
We should also understand that the sanctification of Stonewall over the past 54 years has partly happened as myth rushed in to fill in a vacuum of determined facts. It's interesting to see the strategies Holter used to recreate Stonewall, chiefly by inventing a compacted community of fictionalized gay, lesbian, queer, and crossdressing people, from the neighborhood and from elsewhere, who gather at The Stonewall, owned by the mob but catering to this eight-person crowd. As the Snap Queen Team, Lamar Davis as Mika and Zelena Sierra as Tano have attitudes, sometimes confrontational, about anyone who passes by. When Zachary Parham arrives as the queer Newbie, the Queens are not at all welcoming. But Holter's style of hostility isn't mean-streets raw or even '60s bohemian. Combats and putdowns come at us in the form of rap rhymes and poetry slams.
Aj White, arriving in high heels and a low-cut dress as Carson, is too much for the Snap Queens to handle, despite his grieving over the recent death of Judy Garland. Yet he is visibly floored by the advances of lanky Neifert Enrique as the self-confident, draft-dodging, pot-smoking Cliff, a fatalistic drifter who assumes he will be dumped into the Viet Nam War the next time he is picked up in a raid. None of these core characters appear ripe for radicalization, though the tough Carson and roving slickster Cliff have agreed to meet at The Stonewall. Eric Martinez as the arrogant A-Gay further convinces us of the submissiveness that bonds the Newbie and the Queens. The Harvard grad lords it over all three.
Two catalysts for change are deftly stirred into the mix. Shaniya Simmons as Peg will combine with Carson in fomenting the police brutality at The Stonewall, and Valerie Thames as Roberta, an activist perpetually straining to draw a crowd, will finally be gifted with a galvanizing cause. Besides Southwick as the Cop, friction comes from Iris DeWitt as Madeline, a character who morphs from a concerned citizen to a disapproving sister. Music blasted by guitarist Daniel Hight, bassist Harley, and drummer Paul Fisher was most appropriate when we convened at The Stonewall and the bulk of our cast began to party. Ironically, the music was most effective when it suddenly stopped as police commands triggered the raid. The music vibe and the slam poetry styling were shattered simultaneously. Soon we were in the ladies' room watching the grim brutality. A little less riveting – but perhaps more emotionally fraught – was the climactic confrontation between the sisters after the raid.
Reports of what happened afterwards are unclear, but we do adjourn to the sidewalk stoop where the main point impacts the Queens who sit on it: there's no turning back. Paired with Angels within three points, Hit the Wall reminds us that Kushner's epic ended with a similar takeaway. The feeling that both dramas remain timely urgently underscores the fact that the Pride movement has more work to do.