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Review | ‘Riot Act’ – a new verbatim theatre piece by Alexis Gregory

Attitude Pride Award winner Jason Jones has reviewed Alexis Gregory's new play 'Riot Act'

By Steve Brown

Words by Attitude Pride Award and Trinidad and Tobago LGBT activist Jason Jones

Walking into the Kings Head Theatre on Tuesday night (July 31) for the opening/press night of Alexis Gregory’s new one man play, was like walking into a ‘Who’s Who’ of Queer history!

At one table was Jonathan Blake, he of the film Pride sitting chatting with Paul Burston. There in another corner was Andrew who was on the first ever Pride march in London.

My companion for the evening was Bagladeshi LGBT activist Mazharul Islam who was recently honoured with the Attitude Magazine Pride Award.

As we took our seats, I looked around the audience and realised there were activists from four generations, four corners of the planet, spanning fifty years of advocacy for our community.

There was magic in the air and you could feel something special was about to take place. 

Riot Act is the new one act play created and performed by Alexis Gregory. It is a verbatim piece of theatre. Verbatim theatre is a form of documentary theatre which is based on the spoken words of real people.

In its strictest form, verbatim theatre-makers use real people’s words exclusively, and take this testimony from recorded interviews as Gregory has done in this work.

Gregory interviewed three gay men whose histories span the last fifty years and chart LGBT rights and the cultural texture of the period they were active in.

The play begins with Michael-Anthony Nozzi telling his story of New York City in 1969. Newly arrived as a fresh young seventeen year old to study drama. In very dim lighting, so as the voice of the character takes centre stage, Gregory the actor, shows a masterly bit of voice acting that if one closed ones eyes, there no longer was any semblance of Gregory at all!

This clever lighting device transported us to Nozzi’s New York of 1969, regaling us with the history of the gay scene happening at the time.

Bette Midler singing at the Continental Bathhouse accompanied by a then deeply closeted Barry Manilow is a riot. As he paints the scene for us, of the local gay bars and a fascinating tour of the now famous Stonewall Inn, then the real riot happens. 

The Stonewall Riots of June 1969 are fairly well documented, but this firsthand and deeply personal account is full of subtle details and nuances that only someone who was truly present at that historic moment can capture and express.

Nozzi’s account is deeply profound as it captures the essence of what transpired nearly fifty years ago, what the sparks were that light the flames that night (Judy Garland RIP) and it echoes today in a rather poignant manner as we see Pride celebrations across the world being mired in identity politics, infighting, commercialisation and seemingly losing relevance as to its original intended purposes.

When Gregory’s atmospheric raspy vocal of Nozzi talks about the blood and gore being everywhere, that even the coins from ‘the wishing well’, a glass jar that was inside of The Stonewall Inn to collect donations, which a drag queen smashed over a policeman’s head that night of the raid, he says the coins had spilled out and were stuck to the pavement with blood, you are left wondering, what has LGBT activism become today, and are we too docile in fighting for our equal rights? 

I though of Mazharul Islam sitting in the audience, his friends in Bangladesh, Xulhaz and Mahbub, LGBT activists murdered in their homes in 2016 causing Mazharul to flee that night with nothing but the clothes on his back and David Kato, LGBT activist in Uganda, murdered in his own home by a group of people wielding hammers in 2011. 

Are we in the Global North LGBT community going to continue leaving our LGBT brothers and sisters behind? 

The fight isn’t over for MANY of us across the Globe and for us in South, it is only just beginning. Even after my historic victory in Trinidad and Tobago 4 months ago, I still am fighting for funding and resources to assist with the case which is about to go to appeal, and like Mazharul, I probably have a FATWA on my head as well to deal with.

The following two stories in the play were of Lavinia Co-op and Paul Burston, co-op giving us Hackney AND New York history and Burston giving us London of the Nineties and his final happiness of recreating one of his ACT UP actions for his wedding pictures! 

Again riveting stories and riveting storytelling from Gregory who without doubt, gave a career defining performance. 

Here is an actor in full control of his craft. I think many things came together to make this a stand out piece of theatre and what I predict, will become part of LGBT cultural heritage. 

Firstly, Gregory interviewed the three subjects at length, and formed obviously close bonds with them. Having been the subject of a verbatim play myself, I looked across at Burston and Co-op a couple times, to gauge their reactions watching themselves being mirrored on stage. 

Their huge smiles said it all. 

The production is tight and there is nothing added to distract from the words of these three amazing men. 

I feel Rikki Beadle Blair’s brilliant direction played a big part in coaxing out this bravura performance from Gregory. It really took an experienced actor, to get this level of characterisation. 

Gregory inhabits the three men as if possessed by them. So complete was the transformation that when I saw Gregory after the show, I had forgotten what his own voice sounded like! 

For me as an activist, this piece represents what all activists ultimately desire, to be heard! 

These voices need to be heard! 

GO HEAR THIS PLAY! Well done Alexis Gregory and thank you for a great night out and for documenting our history.

Riot Act runs from July 31st to Sunday 5th August. Book tickets here.