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When you entered the theatre the music hit you. Someone offered you a beer and a woman rushed past you, loudly greeting everyone she saw. You followed her into the space and found your seat as you watched her entreat others onto the dance floor. The music washed over you as you watched other audience members stumble in—including a few who seemed friendly with the band. From the first moments of Hit the Wall, the actors and the audience were tossed together. It was 1969 and we were at the Stonewall Inn. Together.
Soon, the stakes of this immersive prologue became clear. The audience was thrust into this world because the characters needed us. The band ended their set and the show began: the actors turned to the audience, the line between us and them suddenly distinct, and each one told us, emphatically, “I was there.” With these words they implicated us in the act of bearing witness. Every element of design supported this project. The shadowy lights by Jeff Glass and Cassie Mings blurred the line between stage and house. Coral Gable’s period costumes would not look out of place on the streets today. On John Holt’s set, the band was elevated, playing directly to us, and the actors, at least at first, stayed on the ground level, mirroring the audience.
Yet, playwright Ike Holter almost immediately challenges the concept of bearing witness. Carson (Manny Buckley) is the first character to speak: “’I was there.’ Everybody says that. . . . If every sissy who said she was at Stonewall / was actually at Stonewall / shit, you coulda seen that rainbow from outer space, please.” Witnesses are unreliable because they speak from their subjective experiences; once we begin to talk about truth we construct it.
Hit the Wall functions as a docudrama that rejects many of the trappings of the form. Unlike The Laramie Project or The Exonerated, it is not constructed from interviews or found text. Some of the characters are imagined versions of historical figures, most notably Peg (Sara Kerastas), who appears to be inspired by a woman at the bar who, according to several eyewitnesses, fought back against police and turned a raid into a rebellion. Holter gives her a name, a backstory, and a love interest, the revolutionary Roberta (Shannon Matewsky), who has become the leader of a one-woman movement in reaction to the hypocrisies she has found in her fellow radicals—the racism of the women’s movement and the sexism of the Black Panthers. She is uncompromising and undaunted, giving voice to Holter’s critiques of fellow leftists. Elements of the character referred to as “Cop” seem to be loosely based on the officers who led the raid on Stonewall, most notably their defense that they were only following orders. It is Peg’s showdown with Cop in the bathroom of the Stonewall Inn that provides the climax to the play. After beating Carson, Cop (Walter Briggs) turns his attention to Peg, berating and sexually assaulting her. This is not the first encounter between these characters: earlier in the day, Cop, then dressed in civilian clothes, grabbed and threatened Peg in a public park. Cop’s public humiliation of Peg is on a continuum with the violence he will ultimately inflict. Tano and Mika, the “Snap Queen Team” that serves as Greek chorus/comic relief in the play, are witnesses to the daytime incident, but as Cop points out: “They don’t do anything, they watch.” Later that night, Peg fights back against her attacker, taking his gun and forcing him to beg for his life. In the heat of their confrontation, Peg screams at anyone who can hear her: “NO MORE WATCHING! You see me scream, you SEE IT!” That call to arms catalyzed a seismic shift in the action: the stage erupted, what was once a raid became a riot.
Holter explodes the idea that bearing witness is enough. Rather than read Hit the Wall as a document of a historical event, we should understand...