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Hit the Wall

The Stonewall uprising gets reimagined at Steppenwolf.

Photograph: Ryan Bourque

There’s a scene in playwright Ike Holter’s new historical drama Hit the Wall in which a mass of sweaty bodies is gyrating and colliding as one inside the Stonewall Inn, the seedy Mafia-run Village dive bar where the modern gay-rights movement began in New York during the wee hours of June 28, 1969. Was there actually a multiracial, polyamorous swarm of young queer people unleashing pent-up anger through dance just before police raided the joint? Nobody really knows.

“I went down to New York in December for the sole purpose of going to Stonewall every day and seeing what I could find out,” says Holter on a beat-up couch in the green room at the Steppenwolf Garage. “I talked to a few people who are in their late sixties and early seventies now, and every single person I asked would tell me something that would almost directly contradict what the other person told me. It’s not important who threw what first or who kicked whom, it’s about these people coming together as an anonymous mass and saying for the first time that we exist.” They do just that in the Inconvenience's Hit the Wall, now playing at the Steppenwolf Garage and directed by Eric Hoff.

Back then, nobody had Twitter and text messaging or flip cams and Facebook to record or comment on the rebellion that sparked a movement. And many of its most visible members would perish during the AIDS crisis, which would transform the community again just a decade later. Forty-three years on, only a handful of movies (including the subpar 1995 film Stonewall, and the more engrossing 2010 documentary Stonewall Uprising) exist to paint a clearer picture. “It’s still a relatively unknown major historical thing,” Holter says. “It’s untouched theatrical ground.”

That notion fueled the imagination of the playwright who in Hit the Wall envisions the Stonewall myth through the eyes of a half-dozen unlikely revolutionaries including a drag queen distraught over the death of Judy Garland, a butch dyke shunned by her ostensibly liberal sister, multiracial street kids, a feminist revolutionary and a drifter who is riding the countercultural wave. Their stories are set against a scorching New York weekend in which temps reached an unbearable 98 degrees at night (this much is fact) and tensions reached a boiling point. A live band augments the high-energy production, and creative use of the Garage space turns we the audience into Stonewall patrons (when the floodlights shine, we’re all under arrest).

Holter, 26, recalls his first brush with Stonewall as a tween at a public school in Minneapolis. It was 1998 and one of his teachers decided to talk about gay issues in the wake of Matthew Shepard’s death. “She said this weird, two-sentence thing like, ‘One night some drag queens and people got mad and kicked cops, and that was a big thing,’ ” Holter says. “From that moment on it always fascinated me, like a bomb going off in my head.”

Although the preview I saw was still a work-in-progress, a lasting impression is the way in which Holter’s story still resonates. Tensions percolating between differing races and subcultures within the queer community eerily resemble recent troubles on Halsted Street, and a nod to Occupy Wall Street is definitely there. “It’s about existing and telling people that I’m here, I’m not trying to fuck with anybody, I’m just trying to do my business,” Holter says. “Conveniently, these are issues that still make people angry.”

Hit the Wall plays through April 8 at Steppenwolf.

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