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It’s been five decades since a police raid on a small speakeasy in New York City became the flashpoint for the formation of the Gay Liberation Front. But in StageQ’s original production of “RAID! Attack on Stonewall,” opening tonight and running through April 27 in the Bartell Theatre, it’s going to feel like the police raid and ensuing riots are happening all over again, right in front of us.
That’s by design. StageQ artistic director Zak Stowe’s aim is to make local playwright Malissa Petterson’s original play as immersive as possible for the audience. Stowe and his sister, Alyssa (she’s part of the cast), came up with the idea of turning the Bartell’s Evjue space into the Stonewall Inn and placing the audience right in the middle of it.
But once they got into the space, they realized they had to adjust their expectations a little. With the limitations of the Evjue’s black-box space, Stowe and director John Siewart had to get creative. They had the seats pushed up against the Evjue’s exterior wall (“Gruesome Playground Injuries” also recently used this setup) which gives cast members the ability to run through and yell in the hallways outside the theater, giving the audience a sense of what it was like to be inside the Stonewall Inn while police megaphones blared and riots raged outside. Stowe also added additional speakers both inside and outside the theater to amplify the chaos.
“The hope is that you’ll be surrounded by noise,” says Stowe.
While Stowe was working on immersion, playwright Petterson was working on accuracy. She spent more than a year digging into her subject matter, devouring everything she could find.
“Knowing that this event has been butchered so many times in mainstream media, I wanted to avoid playing fast and loose with the facts,” she says.
(She’s not wrong. As recently as a few years ago, the 2015 movie “Stonewall” spun a fabulist tale that credited a gay teenager from the Midwest for journeying to New York and sparking the riots. History, and Petterson’s script, tells us it was a trans woman of color.)
Petterson tried to include as many actual historical quotes from the people involved in the raid and riots as she could, an approach that made following her usual writing process a little challenging.
“I wanted to stay true to events, but I also wanted to tell a compelling, fast-paced and engaging story,” she says. “I wanted to include as many personal narratives as possible, but I also wanted to keep the cast from becoming dauntingly large.”
Stowe was impressed by the final product. He says it’s a funny as it is dramatic.
“I love the way it addresses the ideas of rebellion,” he says. “The notion of what happened when you speak out — and what happens when you don’t.”
He also appreciates the way the show ends on a note of hope, a point he and Petterson discussed in advance, discarding familiar notions of tidy resolution or explanatory epilogues.
“The very next night after the riots started, the Stonewall was back up and running,” says Stowe. “You couldn’t shut it down.”
Petterson, meanwhile, is happy her script captures the broader canvas of what happened that fateful week in New York.
“I think the events at Stonewall show us that we’re capable of enacting change when we work together,” she says. “The queer community fought back that night — which in and of itself was a monumental stride toward reclaiming our rights. But the uprising grew so vast as to be unstoppable when other marginalized groups joined the patrons of the Stonewall to fight against intolerance and injustice.”
For ticket information, click here.
Aaron R. Conklin writes his award-winning coverage of the Madison-areatheater scene for madisonmagazine.com.
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