Shortly after being appointed the new artistic director of WaterTower Theatre, Joanie Schultz made her first bold move by replacing the company's previously announced season finale, the musical Sunday in the Park with George, with a gritty and raw play about the 1969 Stonewall Riots. Her second was to ensure that, under her direction, the play would be uncompromising, uncomfortable, and exactly what DFW needs right now.
Ike Holter's 2012 play Hit the Wall is a lyrical gut-punch about a true historic event, one that brings to colorful and captivating life struggles that are still being felt — more recently now, for sure — for many Americans. Though the setting is Greenwich Village during the sweltering summer of '69, it might as well be today's Texas heat as tensions continue to rise over the debate for basic human rights, respect, tolerance, and safety.
In those early-morning June hours, a raid at a packed gay dance club sparked a riot that would reverberate throughout the country and propel the modern movement for LGBTQ rights. Holter's script is linear, with key characters stepping forward to confirm "I was there" as they lead up to the big confrontation and screech into an aftermath. But unlike most historic touchstones, there is not a minute-by-minute account where every action, word, or placement is analyzed. This is because accounts differ, from those in the club to the police who barged in to those who stood by, either jubilantly cheering or silently watching. Not everyone who was there could talk.
This allows Holter dramatic freedom, but he doesn't abuse it. He stays true to his characters, a motley group of hopeful dreamers and guarded souls who are sketched in deeply grooved lines. The ensemble cast — it's difficult to pick stand-outs, but Walter Lee and Kelsey Leigh Ervi will make you cry while Gregory Lush might give you nightmares — deliver sometimes poetic, other times starkly simple statements about who they are, whom they love, and what they believe.
A house band called The Mystiks, comprised of Deep Ellum musicians Ivan Dillard, Lina Reyne, and Gerard Bendiks, punctuates the action and proves especially handy at sound effects.
On Jocelyn Girigorie's evocative set, under Jason Foster's foreboding lighting, and in Ryan Matthieu Smith's groovy costumes, the actors hold nothing back, exposing the ugliness of homophobia that might make some wince.
But the scary part is, it might not faze others at all. By switching out Sondheim for Stonewall, Schultz has made the decisive — and potentially divisive — statement that under her leadership, WaterTower Theatre will reflect its current world, even if sometimes the world isn't a place we want to be.
On your way into the theater, you can pick up and affix a rainbow ribbon to your shirt. On the way out, there's an opportunity to donate to Abounding Prosperity, a Dallas organization that provide services to black men, with a particular emphasis on gay, bisexual, and male-to-female transgender individuals. The message is clear: No matter how you do it, don't stay silent.
WaterTower Theatre's production of Hit the Wall runs at the Addison Conference & Theatre Center through August 20.