Alexis Gregory returns to the stage following his highly acclaimed Sex/Crime with Riot Act directed by Rikki Beadle-Blair, playing a limited run at The King’s Head Theatre. For this new piece, Gregory has carefully curated three verbatim interviews, and the words he speaks on stage are the words of three men with fascinating stories to tell.
It may seem like a quick win to collect the words of others and regurgitate them in black box staging, but it becomes clear very quickly that Gregory has nurtured a relationship with his interviewees allowing them to open up and share very private, and sometimes traumatic memories. “It’s like counselling” he says in one of his three monologues, repeating the words as they were said to him, and we are frequently reminded that this has been the case with little asides, such as Michael calling to his sister in the other room.
While each of the three men have a different story to tell, Riot Act asks the same question – When exactly was that watershed moment that brought about gay liberation? We might not get an answer, but we do get the opinions of those who lived through it, and in some ways it’s a real education of the forgotten struggle, one that most people under the age of thirty have little concept of.
In the first monologue Michael, possibly the last surviving person present on the first night of the Stonewall Riots, shares the sense of fear that existed in Greenwich Village and that was echoed across the United States. He describes the Stonewall Inn and the events of 28th June 1969 in such vivid detail that we very well could have been sitting in Christopher Street as opposed to Islington’s Upper Street.
With the addition of a pair of high heels, Gregory becomes Lavinia, a 67-year-old drag queen, sharing the memories of a time when Notting Hill was a slum and the AIDS epidemic was a crisis. This feels like the most intimate of the stories, as we hear of Lavinia travelling abroad and embracing new experiences, but finding the same persecution. It’s also the one with the most humour sprinkled over it, with Lavinia eventually pleading with Gregory to “do the voice”.
The AIDS crisis is explored most deeply in the final monologue, which sees Paul share his experiences as an activist, raising awareness of the epidemic. As he talks of his friend, Euan who passed away aged only thirty, you realise with a sickening gut punch, this isn’t fiction written for the stage, it’s real.
The desperation of the gay community in these times comes through strong, thanks to Gregory’s passionate, and at times angry performance. His slightly crackly microphone, intentional or not, reminds us that these are other people’s voices, coming to us from another time, a time so often mis-understood today.
Riot Act is a powerful and deeply moving reminder that ‘freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed’, and whether it be Michael mopping up blood on Christopher Street, or Lavinia bravely walking down the street, or Paul handcuffing himself to Westminster Bridge, each of these men, and thousands like them, had to fight for the freedoms enjoyed by the community today.