5 Questions: Nathan Lee Graham Tells Us How to “Hit the Wall”

Photo: Andrew Werner
Photo: Andrew Werner

One could imagine the headlines that might have appeared in the Parisian newspaper Le Monde on June 29, 1969, but chances are none of them was the gay-rights equivalent of the headline above the editorial in Le Monde on Sept. 12, 2001: “Nous sommes tous Américains” (“We are all Americans”).

No, for the Parisians, as for the Americans, as for people all around the world, the day after the Stonewall riots erupted in New York City there would have been none of that-not even if editors and reporters all around the world had foreseen and understood that Stonewall was in fact igniting one of the most convulsive and propulsive social-change movements of the last 100 years.

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Truly-it’s laughable to think that anyone would have perceived Stonewall as any more than a local response to a very local police action in a local neighborhood involving local queens and faggots. “We all are gay”? Nope, you can’t imagine it, can you? It was inconceivable then and it’s more or less inconceivable now.

Not when this was the kind of copy that ran in a New York City newspaper the day after Stonewall began:

She sat there with her legs crossed, the lashes of her mascara-coated eyes beating like the wings of a hummingbird. She was angry. She was so upset she hadn’t bothered to shave. A day old stubble was beginning to push through the pancake makeup. She was a he. A queen of Christopher Street.

Last weekend the queens had turned commandos and stood bra strap to bra strap against an invasion of the helmeted Tactical Patrol Force. The elite police squad had shut down one of their private gay clubs, the Stonewall Inn at 57 Christopher St., in the heart of a three-block homosexual community in Greenwich Village. Queen Power reared its bleached blonde head in revolt. New York City experienced its first homosexual riot. “We may have lost the battle, sweets, but the war is far from over,” lisped an unofficial lady-in-waiting from the court of the Queens.

“We’ve had all we can take from the Gestapo,” the spokesman, or spokeswoman, continued. “We’re putting our foot down once and for all.” The foot wore a spiked heel. According to reports, the Stonewall Inn, a two-story structure with a sand painted brick and opaque glass facade, was a mecca for the homosexual element in the village who wanted nothing but a private little place where they could congregate, drink, dance and do whatever little girls do when they get together.

The Stonewall riots were a long-gestating reaction to the terrorism of the virulently homophobic New York police state in that pivotal year of 1969. For people of the time, depending on their innate tolerance for prejudice, the riots were unnerving or inspiring, frightening or reassuring, infuriating or freeing. For people of today, trying to empathize with the mood, the moment, the unexpected unleashing of massive, pent-up human energy, the challenge is arguably impossible. We can’t know what it felt like. We can’t imagine that world. We can only read it in history books and memoirs or see it in the occasional film or now, with a 90-minute play like Hit the Wall (open run at the Barrow Street Theatre, 27 Barrow St., 212-868-4444), we can strive for credibility while taking enough artistic license to entertain.

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This use of “creative license,” however, has apparently set certain members of the New York critical establishment into paroxysms of pissy tsk-tsking-as if James Frey wrote the play and not Ike Holter. Or else there’s some pot-shotting at the fine city of Chicago, where the play was first developed. (So if a play comes to New York next week from Tulsa, what do you do to Tulsa? Nuke it?) Perhaps some folks are proprietary about Stonewall because they weren’t there and they wish deep down they could have been, or feel like they should have been or wonder what would have changed or been the same if they would have been. Perhaps some folks are proprietary about Stonewall because they believe, consciously or not, that there must be only one way to tell the tale-and that is with as much fidelity to the facts, so far as we know them, as there can be. Perhaps some folks don’t know what they want in their Stonewall plays, but they know what they don’t want and they don’t want anything.

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But regardless of how the critics feel-and it should be noted that Hit the Wall has benefited from a slew of very enthusiastic reviews-what interests us is what it must be like for an actor to inhabit that world, that disputed world, eight times weekly. Enter Nathan Lee Graham, whose performance as a drag queen-well, his character is practically Jean Valjean with ’60s swagger-is being noted by just about every writer with a pulse and a byline. And rightly so.

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And now, 5 questions Nathan Lee Graham has never been asked:

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1) What’s the most perceptive question anyone has ever asked you about your work?
I was once asked, referring to the precarious nature of show business, if what I did for a living was worth it. My answer was “Yes…I certainly hope so…” Then a fan came sweeping by and said, “Thank you for what you do,” and my response to the interviewer was “See…”.

2) What’s the most idiotic question anyone has ever asked you about your work?
“How do you remember everything?”-i.e., lines, movement, etc. My response: “How do you get through the day?”

3) What’s the weirdest question anyone has ever asked you about your work?
A director asked me once if I could be “blacker,” attitude-wise, in a scene. My response: “What shade?” Then I quit.

4) Some reviewers have criticized supposed inaccuracies in the depiction of the Stonewall riots in the play. Does it matter-to you, to the audience, to posterity-how accurate Hit the Wall is? Why or why not?
Yes and no. Yes, the importance of the truth always matters to me on every level. But how a story is portrayed theatrically is totally subjective. As long as Hit The Wall inspires the audience to investigate more about Stonewall and the struggles that continue with the LGBT and human rights community, then I feel we as storytellers have done our jobs.

5) According to your Wiki page, you were born in 1968. What’s your personal experience, then, with Stonewall or the legacy of Stonewall and how do you use it to give your work realism and texture?
I am a successful African-American out gay artist. None of these descriptions would be possible without the tenacious, hard and heartfelt work of the people who came before me to make it so. Therefore, in my small way, my craft and my performances carry on the tradition of activism and standing up and being counted, if you will. It’s my duty and it informs all of my work in every medium.

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Bonus question:

6) Where do you think the LGBT movement would be today if Stonewall hadn’t occurred? What might have happened instead to ignite the movement? What can you imagine your role in it to be?
In my opinion, there would have always been a “Stonewall.” The name and place may have been different but it would have happened. There’s this phrase: “fed up”. When this occurs en masse, it’s like a tsunami-you can’t stop it! And because people are born the way they are, gay or straight, there would have to have been a cosmic shift at some point. Perhaps some political official, some religious figure or just some plain ol’ movie star would have sparked, ignited the avalanche of change! And I would have always been there to interpret and tell the tale.