Thursday, July 19, 2012
Four years ago, the most heated contest in the November elections in California – after Obama-Biden v. McCain-Palin – was over these 14 words: “Only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California.”
The battle over Proposition 8, which aimed to ban same-sex marriage, was fought fiercely, emotionally and expensively. It passed, but the legal challenges began immediately, and those have been fascinating, crucial sagas that supporters of Prop 8, who are against same-sex marriage, tried to hide from the public.
But that legal (and moral) battle is getting illuminated by staged readings of 8, a play by Dustin Lance Black, the Academy award winning writer of Milk, about San Francisco’s first openly gay supervisor, and Clint Eastwood’s J. Edgar. It’s getting illuminated by schools and theater companies across the country, like Western Stage, this Friday, who are putting on that play for free to show what happened in the U.S. 9th District Court in Perry v. Schwarzenegger. It was a battle of ideas. And one idea won.
Lance Black (who goes by Lance) is coming to Western Stage’s staged reading of his play as a special guest because of what Hartnell College’s theater company meant to him as a teenager after he came to Fort Ord with his military parents and graduated from North Salinas High.
“I took refuge at Western Stage,” says Black, 38, from his home in L.A. “I was a transplant so I didn’t have a lot of friends going into high school, and I was different and shy. I knew I was gay and was not going to tell anyone; I was living in an environment dominated by military and Mormon culture. I had the fortune of going to [Western Stage’s] apprenticeship program to work summer stock productions for three seasons. I met my family [there], really. I auditioned for Peter Pan and I got the role of John. It was one of the biggest thrills.”
Jon Selover, Western Stage’s current artistic director, was the director of that production of Peter Pan and he directs 8, bringing back a veteran cast to play the roles of the trial’s principals. Selover says it may look like the Hollywood version performed by Martin Sheen, Kevin Bacon, George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Jamie Lee Curtis, John C. Reilley, George Takei and Jane Lynch. The Western Stage (and its offshoot 2x4BASH) local premiere is hosted by gay-friendly organizations.
“We jumped right on this project,” Selover says. “Back when the 8 campaign was going on, people in this theater were involved and passionate about it.”
Black says that his Western Stage mentor Leo Cortez gave him lasting confidence and theater training.
“I still use the skills I learned there today in Hollywood,” Black says. “There’s a production [of 8] going up every few days across the country. When I heard that Western Stage was doing it, I said I have to be there for that.”
When Black accepted the Oscar for Milk in 2009, he spoke directly to “all the gay and lesbian kids out there who have been told that they are less than.”
“You are beautiful, wonderful creatures of value,” he said, “and no matter what anyone tells you, God does love you and that very soon, I promise you, you will have equal rights federally across this great nation of ours.”
8 is part of the delivery of that promise. The play is sponsored by Broadway Impact and AFER (American Foundation for Equal Rights, co-founded by Black), which is the sole sponsor of the challenge to Prop 8. When they won in the 9th District Court, their opponents got an injunction suppressing video of the proceedings. So Black wrote the play to get the word out.
“This needed to be theater,” he says. “A film can take three years. We didn’t have that time. The U.S. Supreme Court is going to decide whether to hear this case by fall. The country needs to know what the justices are hearing. We’re using actual words from the trial.”
He claims influences from Laramie Project, about Matthew Shepard’s murder in Wyoming for being gay (Western Stage did that play) and Inherit the Wind, the courtroom drama about evolution in the Scopes Monkey Trial. And in his fusion of art and activism, Black has allies like Dan Savage’s It Gets Better Project.
“Things are improving,” Black says. “Thank God that these cries for help are being heard. [LGBT youth] have always been four times more likely to take their lives than their straight brothers and sisters. People’s divisive language and discriminatory laws have real consequences. It only gets better with work. It’s a call to action for anyone to do what they can. That’s our role in this life.”
“The day things feel better is the day I see Prop 8 fall,” he continues. “That’s a life-saving message – the validation you get when family, when the state, swear to protect that most valuable thing we have: love.”
8 is performed 7:30pm Friday, July 20, at Western Stage Main Stage, Hartnell College, 411 Central Ave., Salinas. Free (sold out; standby may be available). 755-6816, https://vimeo.com/45544274, www.2x4bash.com