Riot Act is a one man play written by and starring Alexis Gregory based upon real life testimonies across six decades of LGBT+ activism. A key part is the story of the Stonewall riots of June 1969 as relayed to Alexis by Michael Anthony Nozzi, one of the last surviving people who was actually there. His story gives us in this jubilee year a fascinating and important glimpse into the reality of Stonewall. We asked Alexis to tell us more.
I am a playwright and performer. Around 2015, Michael Anthony Nozzi, an LA based actor who I’d met in Edinburgh in 2007, approached me and told me that at the age of seventeen, during the summer of 1969 and on his first day out in New York, he found himself caught up in the middle of the Stonewall riots, tending to the injured and helping them to hospital.
He told me that he is now one of the only remaining Stonewall survivors and he asked if I would like to use his story as the basis of one of my shows. Of course I jumped at the chance and so Michael’s life, that he so generously gifted me, became the starting point of my solo theatre piece, Riot Act, which I am currently touring the UK with. Michael’s story sits alongside that of Lavinia Co-op’s and 1970’s radical drag and the early days of the Gay Liberation Front and Paul Burston’s on AIDS activism, as I ‘channel’ six decades of queer activism.
And so began my video chats and interviews with Michael over Facebook as he recounted the most extraordinary stories that left my jaw on the floor. He told me about the, now legendary, decrepit dive bar in detail; the two store fronts that had been knocked down to make one space, how one had to show ID to be granted access to the down at (high) heel dive bar. He told me of the two pans of water underneath the makeshift bar that were used for soaping up and rinsing glasses, the lack of running water in the toilets and the ensuing stench; ‘it was so dirty, I didn’t feel comfortable there’ he said. He told me about the bar’s regular clientele; old gay men and old drag queens with a scattering of street kids and hustlers hanging around; ‘they were just in there trying to survive’. Michael told me of the regular police raids that would happen, perhaps twice a month, when the police would take the money out of the till and beat some of the clientele with clubs because it was ‘just something fun to do’.
I remember querying with Michael as to how connected to Judy Garland’s death the kickback and response was on that fateful night; when the police raided the bar yet again, but this time to be met with hostility by the bar’s patrons who refused to go quietly and nicely. Or was that just overtly fabulous gay folklore and urban myth? ‘Oh, you bet it was connected to Judy’, Michael told me. Not just because the queens were upset that their sacred icon, their Dorothy, was no longer of this earth but because the Stonewall were showing the classic Garland movie, ‘A Star Is Born’ and had pulled in all the clientele from other local gay bars whose takings were therefore down. These bars including Julius’s bar which was connected to the NYC Police Department; the Stonewall was Mafia run. All of this primed the police to instigate the raid that inadvertently kickstarted the modern queer rights movement; the ripples of which are still felt around the world today. Michael told me that he couldn’t believe what he was seeing, ‘Blood on the sidewalk… blood all over the wall. People holding their bleeding heads’.
So this is the reality. Michael’s reality. Faded and fallen Hollywood glamour and blood on the sidewalk. Michael went on to the tell me how the rest of the night unfolded and of its inevitable fallout. He told me of the sexual liberation and freedom that ensued; the devastating impact of AIDS across his, and other lost generations. Michael, taught me about survival not just of that night at the Stonewall, but of surviving an epidemic that led Michael to bury thirty two friends in one month; ‘One Sunday I want to three funerals’.
And so here we are. 2019 and deep into Pride season, fifty years after the Stonewall riots and forty nine years after the first Pride march, held in NYC the following year to mark the previous summer’s landmark moment. Now, many, queer and straight, say that Pride has no relevance; that it has grown into something else. The world is changing. We are not in the shadows anymore. Though some would prefer we stay there. We still need ‘Pride’; whatever that term may mean to you. We need to show that we are out and visible because ‘they’ are coming for us. Slowly but surely. Know that.
We need to hold onto the rights that those like Michael and our other queer brothers, sisters and siblings fought for. There are countries where ‘Pride’ means dogs and water cannons turned on those out to enjoy their day. So whatever ‘Pride’ means to you. I hope you have an amazing day, celebrating however you wish. But please do something. Even if it is to only take a private moment and remember what brought us here and how lucky we are.
On 6 July, the day of Pride in London, I will be performing a section from Michael’s story from ‘Riot Act’ outside the National Theatre on their Riverside stage as part of The Glory take over. I understand I will be flanked by multiple Judy Garlands which sounds heavenly in itself. I am honoured to be recounting some of Michael’s words; a hidden tale that, in part, changed the lives of many and and brought us out into the light; where we must fight to remain.