❉ No frills or theatricality, just raw, honest human stories.
“There was a chasm between the survivors and the new people coming up. It truly never connected again”.
It’s February 2020, and it’s LGBT History Month. This year’s theme is ‘What can we learn from the past?’, reflecting on the multi-generational stories of the gay community. So there’s no better timing for Alexis Gregory’s one-man show Riot Act to enjoy a special lap of victory tour following 2019’s critically acclaimed Stonewall 50th Anniversary/Pride Season tour, which touched down in Milford Haven at the Torch Theatre this Tuesday (11 February), for the only Wales date of the tour.
In this solo show, Gregory commemorates the journey of the LGBTQ+ movement from the incendiary, flashpoint moment that was the Stonewall Riots of New York, 1969, through 1970s Gay Liberation and queer radical theatre that enabled outsiders to find a voice and a community, and into the ‘80s and ‘90s where public and authoritarian hostility towards the AIDS virus radicalised and mobilised a new generation of activists to fight for representation, visibility and to cut through the tabloid demonisation of gay, lesbian and bisexual men and women as social pariahs.
Riot Act charts this journey through the accounts of three individuals, Michael-Anthony Nozzi, Lavinia Co-op and Paul Burston, as writer/performer Alexis Gregory inhabits these three characters in turn, in solo spotlit performances with all dialogue drawn from Gregory’s hours of interviews with the trio and weaved into monologues where Gregory adopts the mannerisms and affectations of his subjects with authenticity. No frills or theatricality, just raw, honest human stories running the full gamut of life experience from hedonism, communal bonding and personal liberation to loss, grief, pain and tragedy.
We hear of 17 year old Judy Garland fanatic Michael Nozzi being thrown from the comfortable, if closeted, familiarity of his Southern hometown to into New York’s downtown gay scene on the night that changed everything – the night of the Stonewall riots – through to living through the free love Utopia of the 1970s, the years of cruising, Bette Midler at the Continental Baths, leather boys, and the subsequent years where the party turned into a wake. Nozzi’s testimony is so richly descriptive, shot through with humour and pathos, and the defiant spirit of the gay community in those turbulent times that it turns history into living, breathing reality, and Gregory’s rasping, waspish, Harvey Fierstein-esque delivery is a bravura vocal performance that must have left him gasping for that first, inter-scene break!
Gregory’s second turn, as radical drag artist Lavinia Co-op, was no less transformative, and possibly the most relatable, a first-hand account of a provincial English gay lad who was born camp before he knew what the word meant, growing up feeling ‘othered’ in a world where, then as now, performative masculinity is the default form of ‘passing’ for cis males if you want to blend in and fit in with the crowd. But having found the wide world of gay culture in the pubs, clubs and community halls of 1970s London in the era of Gay Lib, punk, glam and fringe theatre, Lavinia let his freak flag fly, pioneering a form of drag that wasn’t about female impersonation with an undertow of internalised misogyny that was traditional drag: It was challenging binary gender norms, alternative, androgynous and Warhol-esque living theatre – Lavinia’s monologues acknowledge his peers’ pioneering influence on transgressive drag through the ages, by way of performance artist Leigh Bowery and the New York club kids. Again, we are walked through the times and places of this unsung queer pioneer’s life and experiences with evocative accounts of the cruising grounds of Liverpool Street Station and Earls Court, homophobic catcalls in Miami, witnessing your friends dying before your eyes, and, movingly and empoweringly, coming to terms with being an elder statesman of the LGBTQ community with no fucks left to give.
The story is brought almost up to date with the third and final of Gregory’s subjects, former AIDS activist turned journalist and novelist Paul Burston, no stranger to We Are Cult. Stepping into the spotlight to the sounds of Arnaud Rebooting’s remix of Bronski Beat’s Smalltown Boy, one of the key gay themed songs of the 1980s, Gregory-as-Burston gives voice to the gay experience of Generation X lived at the frontline during the grim, gritty years of the AIDS crisis, Section 28, tabloid homophobia and police brutality. The way Burston tells it, speaking of his time living full-time as an AIDS activist, putting a British spin on the ACT UP movement with publicity-courting ‘zaps’ and other forms of civil disobedience, one gets the impression he wouldn’t change a thing if he lived that time again – we hear of the interminable admin of gay groups (calling to mind the officious dithering of the Judean People’s Front) and the police force baiting and brutalising gay activists for sport, but mixed in with that are tales of how ACT UP’s activism made its members fierce, proud and defiant, how bonds were formed, and how there was still time for hell-raising hedonism amongst the rabble-rousing.
The Burston segment touches on the ecstasy culture of the early ’90s and made a connection that I hadn’t previously parsed – that the euphoria of club culture wasn’t just a reaction to things like the Thatcher administration’s clamping down on raves, or the explosion of dance music, but for the gay subculture, a generation of liberalised, politicised gay, bisexual and lesbian ‘80s kids giving themselves permission to have fun again after years of funereal sobriety, as AIDS treatments became more progressive and the tide began to turn in terms of the wider public perception of the LGBTQ+ community. There were many bridges yet to cross, but it was an ecstatic, euphoric epiphany.
Running through these three, disparate yet united, stories like a stick of rock are dominant themes and messages across the generations: That gay culture, like all cultures and civilisations, is cyclical, with each generation in turn defining themselves and reacting against the generation that preceded them, that if you don’t fit into the heteronormative world, you go out and find your own community, curate your own history, and hope these stories will be passed down…
Above all, the most striking and sober motif of Riot Act’s triptych of oral histories is that the decimation of the LGBT community caused by the AIDS virus, caused a generational divide – “There was a chasm between the survivors and the new people coming up. It truly never connected again”. Riot Act is a necessary, educational, witty and entertaining corrective to this collective loss. Learn from Riot Act, and be entertained with this forceful, emotional telling of the birth and rise of 20th Century queer culture, told as it was lived, in the moment, brilliantly performed and testament to the power of theatre. As we are reminded in Riot Act, in the words of Peter Tatchell, “The price of freedom is constant vigilance”.
❉ Riot Act is created and performed by Alexis Gregory, directed by Rikki Beadle-Blair MBE, and is produced by Alexis Gregory and Emmerson & Ward Productions. The Riot Act Tour is funded by Arts Council England.
❉ James Gent is the Editor of We Are Cult, and is the co-editor of Me and the Starman, (Chinbeard Books, 2019) Available in paperback from Amazon: All profits from this book go toward supporting the work of Cancer Research UK.