Play outlines fight against California's Proposition 8
Share with others:
A riveting example of bipartisanship was on display at Carnegie Mellon University's McConomy Auditorium Monday night, when the play "8," about the trial that successfully challenged California's anti-gay marriage ballot winner, Proposition 8.
Representing the plaintiffs in Perry v. Schwarzenegger -- Perry is Kris Perry, a mother of twins who still hopes to marry Sandy Steir, and you probably recall the Governator -- were Theodore Olson and David Boies, the opposing counsels in Bush v. Gore. Mr. Olson, a conservative scholar and the solicitor general for President George W. Bush, hailed President Barack Obama's same-sex marriage stance by saying, "I am gratified that the president has thrown his personal support and the authority of the presidency behind the goal of justice, equality, and decency for all citizens,"
For CMU's reading of "8," a script by Dustin Lance Black (Oscar-winning writer of "Milk"), Tony-nominee Rory O'Malley stepped off the Broadway stage of "The Book of Mormon" to play the role of Olson at his alma mater.
The reading of the play, based on the District Court trial transcripts of 2010 and interviews with the plaintiffs, including Jeff Zarrillo and Paul Katami, culminates a year of readings at nearly 300 venues in 47 states, and now reaching other countries. The journey to Pittsburgh began with all-star readings in New York and Los Angeles. Broadway star Gavin Creel ("Hair"), who with Mr. O'Malley founded Broadway Impact, a catalyst for the play and the readings, took the play to his alma mater, the University of Michigan, last year.
"CMU would have done it right there," Mr. O'Malley said. "But once [a New York Times] story was published, we had 50 to a hundred places that called us from there. It's really been an avalanche of theaters that have wanted to participate, and it's really nice to bookend it from Gavin's alma mater to mine, to the year anniversary of when we started in New York."
Trying to effect social change through a theatrical work came about as a result of Broadway Impact, formed when Prop 8 passed on the same day that Mr. Obama was elected president, and the American Foundation for Equal Rights, of which Mr. Black is a founding member.
"It's a beautiful story and I'm sure one day it's going to be an Oscar-award winning movie, but we needed it to be told today," Mr. O'Malley said. "We needed to get this sucker out, and this was the way to do it, because when we hand this script to a theater, they know what to do with it."
Certainly Carnegie Mellon's School of Drama students and faculty knew what to do with it.
The actors sat behind music stands or, in the case of authoritative Natalie Baker Shirer as Chief Judge Vaughn R. Walker, a lectern, with binders to guide them. Occasional videos showing the pro Prop 8 commercials that ran in California were the only nod to staging.
In this setting, the trial and personal experiences unfolded as a crushing of the opposition. Counsel Charles Cooper, was played by Trevor McQueen (a BFA student with Broadway, Pittsburgh CLO and other regional credits) as a man bumbling through an argument with no evidence to back it up -- the Bible being inadmissible in cases of constitutional rights.
During a Q&A afterward that included Broadway Impact executive director Jenny Kanelos and Meg Evans, the university's LGBTQ resources coordinator, Mr. O'Malley wanted it to be clear that what we had just heard was all documented in 1,300 pages of transcripts, and he had been outraged that most of those words would have gone mostly unheard because gay marriage foes won an appeal to ban cameras in the courtroom.
That was one inspiration for the creation of "8." Another was to tell the story of the plaintiffs, one that was unseen. Through interviews, Mr. Black weaves in the stories of the Perry-Steir family, including teenage twins Elliot and Spencer Perry, who worried about missing soccer practice or what they would have for dinner that night, all the while cognizant of testimony that ripped at the fabric of their family.
The student actors' naturalistic portrayals fed an emotional connection without staging or scenic trappings.
Loving mother and aspiring wife Kris Perry was played by sophomore Emily Koch with passion and resolve beyond her years, and the boys, freshmen Sawyer Pierce and Steven Robertson, were every bit as believable. Senior Rodney Jackson as Paul Katami gave heartfelt testimony to how being unable to marry the man he loves diminishes him and steps on his fundamental constitutional rights.
Brian Morabito, a senior with an impressive bass voice, was properly aloof as a discredited witness for the pro-Prop 8 side, and Ingrid Sonnichsen, an associate professor at CMU, was a delightful study in self-righteousness as Maggie Gallagher, former president of the National Organization for Marriage, which opposes any legal recognition of same-sex partnerships.
"It's so rewarding to be on the stage with the play being read by students I don't know and faculty members who taught me so much of my passion," Mr. O'Malley, a Cleveland native, said of his return to CMU. "I'm just so proud to be here."
In real life, the overwhelming case for the plaintiffs registered as an easy win, but the case goes on. The decision was stayed when Prop 8's proponents filed a U.S. Supreme Court request for a review of the case. The high court is scheduled to consider the petition on Sept. 24.
The play has had readings in every state except West Virginia, South Dakota and Alabama, Ms. Kanelos said. A map at 8theplay.com shows every theater where "8" has been produced, how a company can produce the play (the rights are free) and links to videos of the productions in L.A. and New York, where CMU alum Matt Bomer joined Morgan Freeman, John Lithgow, Ellen Barkin, Cheyenne Jackson and Christine Lahti. In Los Angeles, the cast, directed by Rob Reiner, included George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Chris Colfer, Jane Lynch, Kevin Bacon and Martin Sheen onstage. Mr. O'Malley was there for both.
"You can watch the reading online [at youtube.com/AmericanEqualRights] and see me next to Brad Pitt going uuuuh," Mr. O'Malley said.
When "8" was launched, the idea was to have it done in New York and L.A., and maybe get it in 25 theaters, he said, so the response has been a bit overwhelming, especially when you consider that Ms. Kanelos is Broadway Impact's only full-time employee and there is still so much work to be done.
The play was performed in North Carolina as voters were approving a statewide ban on gay marriage, and it was there that the play was met with the only hostility Ms. Kanelos has witnessed.
That continues to spur passion for the cause into action, as Mr. O'Malley put it. And theater is the best way he knows how to reach people and perhaps inspire them to write to legislators in states where same-sex marriage continues to be denied.
"What's important right now, at this point in the fight, is to get personal, to have a personal conversation with your friends and family, and I don't think there's any more personal storytelling than theater," he said. "There's no more vulnerable, amazing way to get a point or story across than to have a story being told live in front of you. I think that's part of it, and the other part is, when we have a community theater in, say, Michigan, and the guy who plays Scrooge every year is playing Ted Olson, and people show up because they always show up for that theater, all of a sudden, people in this place where they always show up to be entertained are thinking about this."
First Published September 12, 2012 4:03 pm