Riot Act ☆☆☆☆ The Kings Head Theatre
Alexis Gregory bounds on stage like an excitable puppy and delivers a masterclass in the oral tradition. His latest piece (following sold-out Sex-Crime previously reviewed here) presents the verbatim record of his interviews with three gay men. Each has a tale to tell and Michael-Anthony Nozzi’s is absolutely riveting. He was a 19yr old kid hanging round the Stonewall Inn in NYC. in 1969 “it was all about the hippies – not about the gays“. His eyewitness detail conveying the atmosphere, the lunacy and the squalor with no rose tinted glasses leaves you agog. Alexis throws on a checked shirt and transforms into an elderly American and describes the filthy water in which the beer glasses were rinsed, the smell of the toilets with no running water, the charity wishing well (a mop bucket into which drunk punters would flip nickels and dimes and make a wish knowing it would all end up in the bar staffs pocket or worse – stolen by the police). It was a home for the waifs and strays – mainly old men and drag queens. The only young men were hustlers servicing the older men and they “all looked like they need a wash”!
The neglected jukebox played only country and western (Doris Day/Peggy Lee) and of course: JUDY. The apocryphal story goes it was the death of Judy Garland that sparked the riots (widely regarded as the birth of the gay rights movement). Michael-Anthony, however, lays out a whole different set of circumstances but like a Big Gay Grassy Knoll we may never know. Either way Judy dies and the night of her funeral, “a bar which had 30 people in it most nights was rammed with 300 people” and the rest, as they say, is history. This boy – “a country hick, with a mother like Ethel Merman!”, didn’t realixe the significance of it till after. The power of Alexis’s performance takes us there. You feel it.
Alexis slips on a pair of heels and suddenly he is Lavinia Co-op, who at 19 years old was visiting doctors for a cure for his as yet unconsummated homosexuality when he found himself wandering around Liverpool Street station. He was invited into an alleyway by a chap, and after, when asked if he enjoyed it, Lavinia says “Yes. I think I did“. Alexis conveys the reply with an insistence far stronger than the words would imply and the audience roar. Welcome to world of radical drag. “We are a beard and a wig. Its androgyny and fashion”
Lavinia discusses a rarely heard perspective of the vulnerability of drag; when to drag up and when not to; Full drag/Half drag/Lo drag. “Black people Get It. Asian people Get It. How hard it is to be: On. All. The. Time”.
Alexis has preserved Lavinia’s turn of phrase, the occasional adorably contradictory musing, her soundbites and in it you hear a lifetime of experience condensed, a distillation of queerdom.
Lavinia recounts the strong influence of NYC on early 70’s London Gay liberation which draws on Michael-Anthony’s piece and presages the darker times to come in the final monologue from Paul Burston.
Alexis has swapped the heels for an Act Up t-shirt and we hear how at the height of the AIDS crisis, he never had time to get over the last funeral before the next one came along – emotionally describing the destructive power of “Cumulative grief”. People were desperate and afraid, taking Vitamin C to prevent contracting HIV.
We hear Paul learn about the politics of lesbian separatists whilst planning the next ‘Zap’ (demonstration) at The Bell – a legendary pub in Kings Cross; how he peppered the more boring meetings with illicit sex in the toilets; how youth & beauty were now worshipped and his outrage that people didn’t like to see those with AIDS out on the ‘gay scene’ – this even coming from other gays! As if their illness was “letting the side down”. These were seismic times. Funeral, Zap, Arrest, Funeral, Zap, Arrest.
He firmly believes that AIDS activism helped society to shift on other social issues and he tells his peers not to moan about being fifty as “it truly is a miracle that we made it at all”.
Paul might be seen as the least eccentric character but is certainly the most articulate and the monologue reflects a career of journalism and writing. With Alexis standing there it did at times feel like a TED Talk (inclusive of lip mike) and is oddly the least successful section because of it.
Director Rikki Beadle-Blair ensures each section provides contrast and variety in performance and he really knows how to pace a play – the momentum never gives up. Yet infuriatingly the most extraordinary moment at the end, which has the power to raise the hairs on the back of your neck, felt rushed. “My name is Michael-Anthony, My name is Lavinia, My name is Paul”.
Alexis has woven various themes together beautifully without losing the authentic voice of the three people involved. He effortlessly articulates the NYC/LDN experience; two cities separated by an ocean but with far more in common than we sometimes like to admit.
Whilst Riot Act doesn’t have the depth or range of plays such as Elegies for Angels, Punks and Raging Queens (performed in this exact same space 26 years ago) it does carry on a tradition of personal testament with humor, insight and a lyricism found in the ordinary conversation of three extraordinary men. A tribute to those lost, their fight to improve their world and leave a legacy for the next generation.
As Lavinia remarks: “I wouldn’t say [to young people that] they’ve got it easy. It’s not done and dusted“.
created and performed by ALEXIS GEGORY especially for the Kings Head Theater Queer Season : July 31 – August 5
directed by Ricki Beadle-Blair MBE
Review: Jonny Ward
Jonny Ward, Queerguru Contributing Editor is a drama graduate but has worked backstage for many years at venues such as The Royal Albert Hall, The 02, Southbank Centre and is currently at The National Theatre. He lives in Hoxton, London and is delighted to check out the latest, the hottest and the downright dodgy in queer culture for Queerguru. (P.S. He is currently single)
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