‘Riot Act’, a compelling piece of verbatim theatre celebrating the legacy of Stonewall by Alexis Gregory

Alexis Gregory, Riot Act. Ph: Dawson James.

“You know what’s strange…I felt safer on the night of the riots, on the sidewalk in front of Stonewall, than I did in my own home town”, says Michael Anthony Nozzi, one of the only remaining Stonewall survivors.

9/10- Francesco Ferranti

Marking fifty years of the Stonewall uprising, Riot Act is a stand-out piece of verbatim theatre written and performed by Alexis Gregory and directed by Rikki Beadle-Blair , running at the Arcola Theatre on 23 and 30 June.

The play has been created out of the first-hand testimonies of Michael Anthony Nozzi, one of the only remaining Stonewall survivors, Hackney-born radical drag artist Lavinia Co-op and 1990s Act Up London activist and writer Paul Burston.

At the time of the uprising (1969), consensual same-sex relationships were deemed illegal everywhere in the US except Illinois. A significant number of gay people were arrested in 1970s for “disorderly conduct” or “lewd behaviour” as if same-sex relationships were out of the accepted societal norms. Establishments openly serving alcohol to gay people were considered to be “disorderly houses”, and business who survived the closure were often raided by police.

Judy Garland has just died, as Michael-Anthony Nozzi remembers, and the Stonewall organised a special screening of ‘A Star is Born’: in the early hours of June 28, half a dozen policemen irrupted into the Stonewall Inn starting to club queer customers and kicking them out onto Cristopher Street.

Patrons, and especially queer people of colour, Puerto Ricans, transgender people (Victoria Cruz) and drag queens such as Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera (Founders of Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries aka STAR) fought back and kick-started the Gay Liberation Movement.

Alexis Gregory, Riot Act. Ph: Dawson James.

Alexis Gregory channelled the three characters of Michael, Lavinia and Paul in a deeply moving way, by using costume changes and props in a bare stage, illuminated only by one spotlight. This minimal approach chosen by director Rikki Beadle-Blair enables the viewers to focus on the stories, which provide a frank, powerful, non-romanticised account of what Stonewall really was.

Michael Anthony’s account does not shy away from reality, pointing out the run-down and poor conditions of the Stonewall Inn, which was purchased in 1966 by Toni Lauria, member of the Genovese mafia family. The description of the Greenwich Area is detailed and mentions other iconic LGBTQ+ venues such as Ty’s, Boots and Saddles, and the leather bar Ram Rod. Michael Anthony meditates on the aftermath of Stonewall and the outburst of the AIDS epidemics in the 1970-1980s, reflecting on the ageism and ableism within the LGBTQ+ community.

The Stonewall Inn, a week before the uprising and in 2019. Ph: Getty Images

Next, we encounter Hackney-born radical drag artist Lavinia Co-op (last seen in the sensational Sink The Pink show ‘How to Catch A Krampus’), part of the legendary Bloolips troupe with Bette Bourne, Diva Dan and Pearl.

Lavinia remembered the journey of self-discovery from a place of loneliness and isolation to finding her tribe by moving into a squat in Westbourne Park, Notting Hill. It was pleasing to hear from her the pivotal role gay women had within the Gay Liberation Front (called “Gay Lib”).

Alexis Gregory, Riot Act. Ph: Dawson James.

Next up, Paul Burston discussed his activism with Act Up London and how it stemmed from a personal experience of losing friends to AIDS.

To contextualise, Act Up (Aids Coalition to Unleash Power) is a grassroots political group, started in 1987 in New York by Larry Kramer and others, working to end the AIDS pandemics “through direct action, legislation, medical research, treatment and advocacy, changing public policies”.

Paul gives an insight into the beginning of Act Up, where miscommunication and ignorance were rife (e.g. the false myth of taking Vitamin C for medication, the idea that American guys were to avoid). Mentioning the erasure of women from the history of ACT Up made me reflect on the misogyny played out in the LGBTQ+ community.

Half a century after Stonewall, it is more crucial than ever to celebrate all the people that paved the way for queer rights and continue to fight and push towards a better future.

The stories of Michael, Lavinia and Paul are connected despite the geographical distance in terms of the suffering in the neverending fight for equality and will make you laugh and cry at the same time.

More information can be found here.

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