Riot Act – Arcola Theatre, London

Writer: Alexis Gregory

Director: Rikki Beadle-Blair

Reviewer: Scott Matthewman

This month sees the 50thanniversary of the Stonewall Riots when the gay clientele of the Stonewall Inn on New York’s Christopher Street fought back against yet another violent police raid.

It was not the first such rebellion – the recent Netflix Tales of the City mini-series throws some light on the Compton’s Cafeteria riot in 1966 San Francisco, some three years earlier, for example – but it was the event that has remained in the collective memory, a permanent waypoint in the path from oppression to equality.

Coinciding with the anniversary, Alexis Gregory’s Riot Act returns, after performances last year at the King’s Head and a charity gala performance in the West End, with a series of weekend performances at the Arcola Theatre and a short UK tour.

Gregory’s verbatim piece comprises recreations of three people. The first, actor and director Michael-Anthony Nozzi, is one of the few surviving people who were at the Stonewall riots themselves. As Michael, Gregory recounts what life was like in 1960s New York for a gay man.

Michael has no romantic views of the Stonewall Inn: his vivid descriptions are of an unsanitary dive that existed only because its habitués had nowhere else to go. On the night that descended into riot, the Inn was celebrating Judy Garland, who had dies the week before, with a showing of a customer’s own print of A Star Is Born; Michael’s monologue suggests that the police raid that followed was initiated by a rival bar across the street, upset that its own clientele had deserted it for the celebration.

Whether that element is true is hard to say – this is verbatim theatre reflecting individual viewpoints, not investigative journalism, after all – but it certainly adds further colour to an already vivid recollection.

Gregory’s second character is London activist, the “radical drag” performer Lavinia Co-Op. A wide-ranging monologue concentrates on Lavinia’s life within Notting Hill communes of the 1970s, as what became known as “gay lib” began to form. Lavinia’s form of drag, a simultaneous combination and rejection of male and female gender expectations, contains one slight barb at the commercialised, mainstream version of drag that is seen on TV these days – a sniffy reference to “the RuPaul thing”. But there is little malice in Lavinia’s tone, nor in Gregory’s retelling. What vitriol there is emerges more of sadness, as Lavinia laments the break up of “gay lib” when its female contingent struggled to be heard.

Both Michael and Lavinia’s stories move on from their initial topics to the devastating effect that HIV had on the gay community by the end of the 1980s. Each character tells of the devastating effect of having so many close friends die from AIDS. And that leads into Gregory’s third character, Paul Burston, the writer and novelist who led the London branch of activist group ACT UP.

Whereas the original American ACT UP used the slogan “Silence = Death”, Burston and his comrades elected for “Action = Life”, coming up with disruptive acts (‘zaps’) to attempt to publicise the plight of people living with HIV and Aids. But for all the stories of the demonstrations, and of police inhumanity (wearing rubber gloves in case they caught something, refusing to allow arrested activists access to their HIV medication) it is the funerals, the relentless onslaught of grief, that catch in the throat.

Gregory’s editing of each of his interviews skilfully invites thematic connections between the three characters without being too heavy-handed. Like Lavinia’s recollections of the gay lib movement, Burston emphasises the role of women within ACT UP, and laments their erasure from the narrative.

But it is the more explicit connections, decades of activism within a community that has a generation all but missing due to disease, that remain in the memory. An oral history depends on being passed on from soul to living soul – and with so many people lost to HIV, that makes verbatim pieces such as Gregory’s all the more important.

The stark presentation, which places Gregory in a more or less static position on the stage at all times, sometimes struggles to connect with all sides of the Arcola’s tricky thrust stage. One feels it will fare better in venues where the actor can connect with his entire audience in a single glance. But that does not overly detract from the weight of his words, with stories that need to be heard and which are delivered with power that demands we listen.

Continues until 30 June 2019 and touring | Image: Dawson James

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