“It was intimate, and it felt personal, bringing alive moments in history that can feel so far removed from our present reality.”
BY CAIT FINDLAY, IMAGE BY HOLLY REVELL
LGBT+ History Month is an opportunity for us to reflect on our shared histories and look forward to our futures together. Alexis Gregory’s Riot Act does both, in a spellbinding solo performance that delivers messages from the past to inspire hope for the future.
Gregory crafted the production from interviews with three significant figures from moments in queer history: Michael-Anthony Nozzi, who witnessed and survived the Stonewall riots; Lavinia (Vin) Co-Op, an alternative drag artist; and Paul Burston, an AIDS activist. You may not recognise their names, but the stories they tell build up a compelling picture of the legacy that younger queer people have inherited.
I watched the show, which is available to stream, alone in my living room. The staging was simple, and each character Gregory played was differentiated only through clothing and make-up. Nonetheless, I felt as though I was hearing directly from queer elders. It was intimate, and it felt personal, bringing alive moments in history that can feel so far removed from our present reality.
Through Michael’s story, I saw the gritty reality of the Stonewall Inn – it had no running water in the bathroom, and two bowls of water to clean glasses weren’t refreshed for hours at a time. And yet, when the police came to bully and harass the clientele in the week after Judy Garland’s death, as they had done many times before, something snapped. This was their home, and they were going to defend it, no matter the blood spilled.
From Vin’s campy style of speaking and permanently raised eyebrow, I was introduced to a side of drag culture far removed from today’s shiny TV shows. Importantly, Gregory used Vin’s voice to assert that “gay lib wasn’t just about gay men. It was about gay men and gay women.” The conceit of the piece as a one-man, verbatim show is otherwise limited in addressing the ways in which race and gender activism coalesced to meet queerness.
There was, of course, a spectre haunting the performance, which came to light with Paul. Gregory wore an ACT UP T-Shirt, with an inverted pink triangle, to allow Paul’s voice to speak through him. Though all three characters had mentioned AIDS – how could they not? – it was most central to Paul’s story. The simplicity of the staging, of being talked to as if on Zoom with a queer elder, powerfully conveyed the pain and trauma of AIDS.
There is something for everyone in Gregory’s performance. It’s funny, it’s campy, it’s sad, and it’s political. For those who are closer in age to Michael, Lavinia and Paul, there is catharsis in the reminiscing about times that were good, bad, and ugly.
For younger viewers, like me, there are repeated invocations to remember where we have come from and to have a clear vision of where we are going. We owe it to our elders to handle their stories and legacies with care.
Riot Act can be found on stream.theatre from 1 – 28 February, 2022. Tickets are £15.
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