Putting history onstage comes with perks and pitfalls. If the person or event depicted is beloved, he/she/it comes with a built-in sense of affection; audiences already know they like what they’re about to see. But such storytelling isn’t without hazards. Representing true tales situates everything under a harsher magnifying glass, and storytelling choices can irk viewers in ways they otherwise wouldn’t had the subject not been so dear.
Hit the Wall at the Barrow Street Theatre is a case study in just how hard it is to navigate that tightrope. Its concern is the Stonewall riot of 1969, that Greenwich village uprising that sparked the gay rights movement. Playwright Ike Holter and director Eric Hoff try to untether their diorama from the historical play pitfalls I’ve mentioned by lifting it from strict realism (we get Def Poetry Jam-style monologues and archetypical characters) but the play still has to face the expectations of its audience, a neighborhood audience personally invested in seeing a story that is narratively and emotionally accurate. The fact that the real Stonewall is but feet away from the theater only heightens the stakes of the initial affection and subsequent scrutiny.
Hit the Wall doesn’t quite survive that intense look. In attempting to tell so many stories—the narrative ping pongs from one set of characters to another—and by shifting styles and locations, the play becomes cacophonous and unfocused, and the riots feel almost random. Certainly, living up the actual event is an exceeding tough challenge for any play, but that is just the challenge Hit the Wall has taken on. History bears gifts, but they come with a steep price tag.