As I noted in my previous blog post, I’m skipping participating in the Crazylegs Classic today, mentally recuperating from a very grueling work week. However…
At least I did take the time to do a little something for me. Friday night, I got out of the house, hit the town, and considered a significant event that occurred way back in the past. June 28, 1969, to be exact.
This year is the 50th anniversary of the famous Stonewall riots in New York City. As they occurred during an era of social upheaval in the United States (the late 1960s), they are widely considered to be the catalyst of the gay liberation movement and the modern-day fight for LGBT rights and freedoms.
With the golden jubilee of Stonewall upon us, the Madison-based LGBT theater group Stage Q commissioned an original play that reenacts that important night in history. The result was RAID! Attack on Stonewall, which ends a 7-performances-over-2-weekends run at the Bartell Theatre this afternoon.
RAID! Attack on Stonewall (yes, the all-caps and exclamation point are part of the title) was penned for Stage Q by the local playwright Malissa Petterson, who, according to this Madison Magazine article, spent over a year doing research on the Stonewall riots, digging up details large and small and incorporating as much as she could into the play.
As noted in that article, Petterson strove for accuracy in depicting the events of Stonewall, wanting to “avoid playing fast and loose with the facts.” Indeed, recollections and depictions of that fateful night have varied greatly over the years. Perhaps the most (in)famous retelling was a 2015 motion picture called Stonewall, which was roundly and deservedly criticized for turning the event into a “coming of age” story of a queer (and fictitious) teen from conservative Indiana, and for positing that said teen started the whole riot simply by throwing a brick.
Thankfully, RAID! does not freely take as many liberties with history, holding as close to real events and characters as possible. The most notable evidence of this was the presence of characters of color. And I’m not just talking about the the hatcheck attendant, the second character to make their entrance in the play, who was depicted as the mother figure among the Stonewall Inn employees (and utilizes a lovely signing voice at one point). I’m also talking about three “street queens,” the most prominent among them being one Marsha P. Johnson (“The ‘P’ stands for ‘pay it no mind'”), reduced to a peripheral figure in that Stonewall film but holding court as the flamboyant figure she was. Ms. Johnson and two other prominent trans characters (i.e. born men but presenting as women) were made equal among the patrons. Throw in a butch lesbian character, and that made RAID! a more historical portrayal of events than what Roland Emmerich conceived for the screen in 2015.
During its first half-hour and its all-too-quick ending (and more on its pace later), you get the sense from RAID! that the night of June 27-28, 1969 was just another evening of business and merriment at the Stonewall: Staffers set up the bar. Patrons arrive. Identifications are checked (by a man in fedora and sunglasses, a nod to the Stonewall’s actual mob ownership). Drinks are served. Music is played on the jukebox (“Stand!” by Sly and the Family Stone was a perfect choice). People dance up a storm. Attractions and friendships are built. Propositions are made. And everyone is having a good time.
And then about 25 minutes into the play, these words are uttered:
“Police! We’re taking the place!”
You didn’t need to know the history of the Stonewall riots going in to know that the fear of infiltration and raids by the NYPD were on the minds of Stonewall employees and guests. During the first half-hour of RAID!, there were more than a few remarks of past raids in other establishments by the fuzz, either anti-mob efforts or visits by the Public Morals Squad. But there was also, in a bit of foreshadowing, some reactive expressions from Stonewall patrons about those raids and the desire to live openly, be respected for who they are, and not be treated as an “other” by an unsympathetic world. Even with the blue language, those were words that can fit right in with the conservative anti-LGBT (and, in particular, anti-trans) attitudes we’re experiencing here in 2019.
As well (and again, another nod to historical accuracy in RAID!), there was the presence of undercover cops. They were there to gather “visual evidence,” whether it be an unattended bar or someone intimately touching another person of the same gender. Two such plain clothes officers were depicted in RAID!, one of each gender. (History states there were two of each that night, but you don’t want to unnecessarily burden a play with too many characters.) One of the officers blended in quite nicely with the patrons, even if they were a bit suspicious of him. The other, however, seemed to stand her guard and appear too observant of the surroundings. (That she was credited as “Undercover Policewoman” in the program, nor did she use a name or alias while in conversation, certainly didn’t help.)
Naturally, the turning point was the arrival of Inspector Seymour Pine (another real-life figure from that night) and his NYPD crew on the scene. And what had already been a somewhat fast-paced play accelerated even further, showing how what could have been a routine bust went dangerously, though thankfully, awry:
- The fuzz verbally and physically harass the patrons.
- Those dressed as women are asked to “verify” their gender (“Just come with me into the restroom, uh, ma’am”).
- IDs are demanded, which leads to trans characters being dead-named and misgendered (“No! My name is Yvonne!”).
- Police radios go haywire, leading to police miscommunication (another nod to what actually happened that night).
- Objects are thrown, including a shot glass (yes, Marsha P. Johnson threw it, as I recall).
- A fire breaks out (simulated with lights, for sure, but “put out” through the actual use of an extinguisher).
- The Fourth Estate arrives, in the person of Village Voice reporter Howard Smith (another actual witness of the night).
- Police brutality ensues, made clear through the use of stage blood, an officer’s baton, and helpless screams.
- And, yes, a stand is taken, inspired by a cry of “Why don’t you do something?!” and turning into chants of unison outside the establishment, with Marsha P. Johnson front and center (take note, Roland Emmerich).
As mentioned in that final bullet point, the voices of protest are clearly heard in the play. Speaking of noise, I want to bring up a noteworthy aspect of this production: RAID! was presented in the Evjue Stage, the Bartell Theatre’s black box area that can be arranged to meet the tastes and demands of any production utilizing it. Stage Q aimed to make RAID! an “immersive experience.” Aurally, at least, they hit it out of the park, through the liberal use of sound effects not just within the Evjue but just outside it. How so? The audience (90 maximum, sitting in two sections of four-row risers) was pushed to a thin back wall. On the other side was a hallway where actors (as protestors) could shout their lines and Foley-like effects could be conducted. At one point, pennies were thrown against metal, meant to reproduce the actual pennies thrown at police paddy wagons on that eventful June night in New York. Call it one of the many touches that created a surrounding of sound.
While the aural effects were cool, the Evjue’s small space both created intimacy yet hampered the production’s blocking a bit. Why do I say this? Well, downstage and literally within a few feet of the audience was the main Stonewall bar area (bar, tables, chairs). To the extreme left of the audience was an empty space, representing the Stonewall’s dance area early in the play and, later on, the open air area where the riots occurred. Were the Evjue bigger than it actually was (30×50 feet), perhaps the riot scenes could have been moved closer to the audience, or even sharing half of the stage with the bar area. Instead, those on house right, myself included, could’ve used binoculars to take in the stirring visuals of what was happening way over on the other side.
This staging also had mixed results during the raid portion of the play, when lighting would switch back and forth between locations. If a riot scene was happening, it was illuminated while the bar went dark. If the action went back inside, the bar lights were brought up, while the “outside” lighting was toned down and the rioting actors literally went into silent, slow-motion mode. An unintended comical effect, in a play that wasn’t entirely comical, but it did create a bit of a split-screen effect (think 24), and helped create the fast pace the RAID! producers were looking for.
Unfortunately, RAID! seemed to have too fast of a pace. Including the standard 15-minute intermission, the running time from first scene to cast bows was all of… wait for it… roughly 75 minutes. The second act itself lasted just over 15 minutes. While that fast pace was intended, for sure, I wished the play had run a little longer, even if that meant additional character development and further expanded themes of rebellion.
I must clarify something about that primary character development, though: Despite the fast pace, the characters in RAID! were fleshed out just enough. And there seemed to be equal time among sides as well: The Stonewall patrons (aka the heroes of our story) were more than just the clothes on their persons and attitudes of pride in their minds. Really, they wanted to live as the sexual and gender identities they know they are. But a couple of the NYPD figures were also painted in three dimensions. The “undercover policewoman” tried to respect those she was arresting; in a sense, she could have been representative of police officers who didn’t know much about LGBT people at the time but would begin to learn, albeit at a glacial pace. And Seymour Pine himself had his own conflicts, insisting he was just following what he was ordered to do but later realizing in the play’s brief closing coda that the protesters were just part of a future generation exploring their freedom to grow (something the real-life Pine seemed to communicate in his later years).
A note about the brief final scene, and about the play’s broad tone: RAID! depicted that June evening at Stonewall to be just another night at first. The finale also depicted that next night in the same way. Tables were turned back up, bars were cleaned off, and breaths were exhaled by the Stonewall employees. They didn’t have time to think about what could — nay, would — happen 50 years on. Their worries were keeping the bar running and bracing it for the next raid to come, as the characters remind the audience in an all-too-brief, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it epilogue. So if you were betting there’d be dialogue on par with “We’re makin’ history, yo!” the odds were against you.
Perhaps that’s what Stage Q was getting at when depicting that night in RAID!: It started out normally, led to a police raid that didn’t end normally, and became a pivotal point in the American narrative. The play itself went the same way: It started out simple, became ambitious and effective (bumps notwithstanding), and hopefully reminded its audience, especially those who weren’t old enough to live it, that there was — and still is — a need to stand up, fight back, and proudly live your life as your own.