Last night a staged reading of Dustin Lance Black's "8," the story of the 2010 federal trial that successfully overturned California's 2008 initiative that rewrote the state's constitution to ban gay marriage, took place in downtown Phoenix at the Herberger Theatre.. (That judicial decision was upheld in a federal appeals court and is currently pending an appeal to the United States Supreme Court with a decision expected next month.)
A great deal of this play was "lifted" from the actual transcripts of the Proposition 8 trial and then carefully woven together by the playwright. Actual footage of propaganda commercials used by Prop 8 proponents were also interspersed into the production. The effect was to bring the audience not only into the courtroom, but into the overall experience of the time.
The Herberger Theatre was packed to over-flowing with every seat appearing to be filled both in the downstairs auditorium as well as in the balcony. The cast of a couple of dozen readers included some nationally known individuals as well as several well known locals. (The most prominent "no show" was Cindy McCain who begged off due to a personal health issue.)
The national celebrities appearing on stage included Cleve Jones, a young intern to San Francisco City Supervisor Harvey Milk and who was played by Emile Hirsch in the movie, Milk. Jones was the individual who later came up with the idea of the AIDS quilt, the world's largest craft project which now weights over 50 tons. Broadway actor Rory O'Malley was also a featured reader. O'Malley was nominated for a Tony award for his role in The Book of Mormon.
The other "celebrity" to grace the stage was the playwright himself, Dustin Lance Black. Mr. Black, who won an Academy Award for his screenplay for Milk, also penned the script for last year's J. Edgar. While soon to be thirty-nine, the playwright could easily pass for fourteen. He read the part of an adolescent boy who had been consigned to reparative therapy after his parents found out that he was gay. It was one of the most moving performances of the evening.
But, national celebs aside, it was a couple of locals who stole the show. Former Republican state attorney general, Grant Woods, played Ted Olsen, George Bush's Republican Solicitor General, who brought the case to court and represented the plaintiffs. Woods had some of the best lines of the play, but they were words crafted by Olsen during the actual trial and carefully organized into the script by the talented Mr. Black.
(During a question and answer session after the production, a man in the audience said that he had "come out" to Woods while working as a young lawyer in his office - state attorney general - twenty-three year's before - and that Woods, a Republican, had told him that there would be no discrimination in his office. The place erupted into a standing ovation.)
Terry Goddard, also a former state attorney general, but a Democrat, (and former mayor of Phoenix) played Judge Vaughn Walker. Walker, a "mavericky" Republican-appointed federal judge, came out himself as gay after the trial was over. Goddard's Judge Walker was at times acerbic and cynical, and other times charming or downright funny. He gave a masterful performance.
(It was announced at the end of the program that current Phoenix mayor Greg Stanton was in the audience. Not surprisingly, Joe Arpaio and Jan Brewer were not.)
Lance Black and Rory O'Malley took questions from the audience at the end of the production. One lady noted that one of her favorite movies is Inherit the Wind. She asked if there were any plans to make "8" into a movie. Black responded that they are waiting on the Supreme Court decision next month - or, in other words, to see how the case ends before the movie will have an ending.
Another person asked if this material was being presented to high school groups. Lance Black said that it has been presented to several high schools and even one middle school. He said that he went to a high school performance in the Los Angeles area to observe student response. The response, he noted, surprised him, because the students laughed all the way through it - they couldn't believe the way adults thought and talked about sexual orientation.
"8" has been staged over 300 times, including readings in all 50 states and seven foreign countries. It has been performed on Broadway, and there is a version on YouTube featuring George Clooney and Brad Pitt - or as Rory O'Malley malapropped last night, "George Pitt." Calling Dr. Freud!
There was a gathering upstairs at the theatre after the performance for special people, but I wasn't invited. But regardless, I felt awfully special for just scoring a ticket to last night's staged reading of "8." It was an exceptional piece of theatre, and Dustin Lance Black is clearly one of the two best screenwriters working in America today.
(To support the case overturning Prop 8 and or make a tax-deductible donation supporting marriage equality, please visit www.8theplay.com. More information may also be obtained at the American Foundation for Equal Rights website at AFER.org. )