On Thursday night, the Spectrum Theater was filling up for the opening night of “Hit the Wall” by Actors’ Theatre Grand Rapids. Everyone took their seats, the lights still on, cast members chatting in groups around the stage, the band playing music in the background. Without introduction, the lights only dimming slightly, the cast took places and a woman — the character of Carson played by Darius Colquitt — began to sing. The audience was instantly engaged, some even singing along in their seats.
The musical (although it’s more dancing than singing) highlights the Stonewall riots of 1969, which propelled the LGBT movement that still exists and in many ways isn’t much different from today.
From the very beginning, the audience feels a part of the chaos, with actors entering the theater from behind the audience and moving up and down the aisles throughout the show.
And there’s no doubt that the intimacy between the audience and the diverse cast is intentional, especially when you are looking into the horror-filled eyes of a person getting beat by the cops, who raided the Stonewall Inn and began to beat and arrest those who didn’t fit their “assigned gender.” The entire cast clearly brought the audience back to this moment, with each scene beginning with a date, time, place and temperature outside. Symbolically, the heat rises by the hour and eventually reaches the boiling point.
The riots began when the party-goers fought back, full of unrest over being pushed to the bottom of society. Throughout the show, various cast members repeat “stop watching” as crowds watch the police beat people into the early morning hours, and you can’t help but feel reminiscent of today’s current events, where people film fights and altercations between police and civilians, and we all stand by and watch.
“Hit the Wall” only shows the events of two days’ time, but it speaks volumes about the beginning of a revolution, about a group of people, made up of all races and genders, who just want to be accepted by society. It’s about how even though these events happened in the ’60s, they’re not at all far from what the LGBT community is still experiencing today.
The entire cast became the riot of The Village for the night, and the audience felt in the middle of that action and emotion. One stand-out performance (though all were excellent) was Sydney Doornbos, who played Peg, a lesbian who dresses in “men’s” clothing. Throughout the show, her character struggles with her family and money, being beaten and shamed for who she is. And Doornbos did not hold back, providing gripping, emotional moments that brought the audience back to 1969, and nearly to tears.
For those looking for a fun, light musical, this show is not for you. Yes, it’s entertaining and performed very well, but it sends a clear message that we as a society still have a lot of work to do. As Grand Rapids holds its Pride festival this weekend — 29 years after the first one — it’s important to remember where it all really began, and that we cannot just stand by and watch as people are treated less than human, whether it be for race, gender, religion, sexuality or class.
Hit the Wall
Actors Theatre Grand Rapids
160 Fountain St. NE, Grand Rapids
actorstheatregrandrapids.org, (616) 234-3946