Released online via stream.theatre for LGBT+ History Month 2022, Alexis Gregory’s Riot Act is an extraordinary piece of both verbatim theatre and queer history
“I’d spent so long standing on the outside, looking in” “We need a museum to explain all this shit!”
When done well, verbatim theatre has a power like no other and Alexis Gregory’s Riot Act sure as hell fits that bill. Following a recent UK tour, it has been recorded and reimagined online to mark LGBT+ History Month 2022 although quite frankly, you’ll end up feeling it ought to be available all year long because this is the kind of history that should be taught no matter what month it is.
Verbatim theatre is a form of documentary theatre that uses the precise words of real people to illuminate not only their own stories but also a wider, contextual picture. And here, Gregory uses interviews with a Stonewall survivor, a radical drag artist, and an AIDS activist to hone in on the remarkable achievements and aching lived experience of those who have been part of the LGBT+ rights movement.
And the result is a mesmerising hour of storytelling. Gregory adopts the accents and mannerisms of each of his three subjects and so there’s an almost chameleonic effect that draws the audience in even more to these distinct but interconnected worlds. And what vividly painted worlds they are, so many centred on iconic LGBT+ venues which makes you realise the signifiance of steadily losing so many queer bars and pubs in London and beyond.
From Michael-Anthony Nozzi’s chuckling acknowledgement of the dinginess of the Stonewall Inn to Lavinia Co-op’s refreshing candour about how drag intersects with a wider sense of the discovery of one’s identity, there’s nods to the inclusiveness of the communities they found for themselves too. The people of colour and the women whose stories are so often undertold, a heartfelt recognition of the debt owed to them too.
Filmed in atmospheric surroundings of the Hackney Empire, Rikki Beadle-Blair’s production perhaps cuts just a little too much to ‘audience’ shots that add little in the final analysis. For there’s something deeply emotional here, just as much fear mixed in with the laughter, particularly as each subject touches on the way AIDS impacted their lives and their loved ones and their concerns about keeping these stories alive. Activist Paul Burston, the third interviewee, puts it so well when he calls out what we label as ‘official history’ and celebrates the importance of oral history like this in capturing the vital details.