Karen Ocamb

Impressions of Dustin Lance Black's Play '8? & Why It's So Important

Filed By Karen Ocamb | March 06, 2012 11:00 AM | comments

Filed in: Entertainment, Marriage Equality
Tags: 8, Dustin Lance Black, play reading, Prop 8, Prop. 8, Scopes trial

Dustin Lance Black, author of '8' the play, with American Foundation for Equal Rights co-founder Chad Griffin at West Coast premier of '8" on March 3, 2012 (Photo by Karen Ocamb)

The Los Angeles Times has a nice entertainment news-overview of Dustin Lance Black's play '8' that had its West Coast premier on March 3 before a sold out audience at the Wilshire Ebell Theater and international viewers via YouTube. The American Foundation for Equal Rights, which is sponsoring the federal case challenging the constitutionality of Prop 8, presented the play with Broadway Impact about the 12-day first trial in district court in San Francisco. The event raised more than $2 million to continue the fight for marriage equality.

Given the star talent of George Clooney and Brad Pitt, the Times declared that the "splashy event" was "part activist theater, part Hollywood in-party" making "'8' feel something like 'Ocean’s Eight.'" Clever. Actor Martin Sheen, who played attorney Ted Olson, told Variety's Ted Johnson and me that he saw "parallels to 'Inherit the Wind,'” a classic play about the Scopes trial on religion vs evolution.

I agree with Sheen. But a stage reading is only the beginning of the process - the first hints at character development and seeing if the plot works. I attended the trial upon which the play is based and saw '8' Saturday night. Here are my impressions (offered below) in the hope that you will check out the play yourself and, if you like it, perhaps you'll help spread the word since, as attorney David Boies said: "We put fear and prejudice on trial - and fear and prejudice lost." Unfortunately, the 9th Circuit refused to release the video of the trial so this creative non-fiction rendering will have to do. As I posit below, in some ways the play may actually give us a better understanding of just how important this case is.

Black re-wrote portions of '8' after the Broadway premier to have less legal language and more human interaction. Apparently the actors in the LA stage reading had only two run-throughs the day of the performance. But the changes strengthen the play to underscore what the antigay Protect Marriage Prop 8 proponents convinced voters to believe versus the real lives of lesbian and gay couples with children.

First - applause, applause to director Rob Reiner and whoever else was involved for the brilliant creative idea to chuck out the old standard rules of getting actors who are supposed to look like the real people they portray. Morgan Freeman looks nothing like attorney David Boies but I bet he played Boies to perfection in the Broadway version of '8.'

George Clooney as David Boies (Photo by Alex J. Berliner/ABImages)

In LA, Boies was played by Clooney. In a conversation with playgoers afterwards, when I mentioned I had covered the Prop 8 trial in district court, someone asked if Boies was really as sardonic as Clooney portrayed him when questioning Protect Marriage witness David Blankenhorn. "Oh, yes!," I said. "David Boies has a wicked sense of humor. Under his withering cross-examination – in what appears to be a respectful demeanor – he leads a witness like Blankenhorn to a place where the witness is slapping himself with his own hand." It was funny at the time - but because of courtroom decorum, we didn't laugh so loudly as we did in the theater.

In Clooney's case, he also seemed to break the fourth wall and wink at the audience, inviting us to scorn Blankenhorn, too. Blankenhorn, after all, was the only witness the Protect Marriage Prop 8 proponents put up as an "expert" witness because he'd written two books on marriage. Brad Pitt also captured Judge Vaughn Walker when he drolly asked Protect Marriage attorney Charles Cooper if Blankenhorn really deserved to be considered an expert for the purposes of the trial.

Protect Marriage attorney Charles Cooper (Photo by Karen Ocamb)

Cooper was portrayed by Kevin Bacon. Now I don't know if Reiner had this in mind - but I couldn't stop chuckling at the thought of how this casting flipped Footloose: there was Kevin Bacon – whose rebellious teenager character fought to bring freedom to this small town - now playing a richer version of the Religious Right fanatic who fought against that freedom as if dancing was the Devil's doing. At trial, Cooper couldn't stop talking about marriage as the foundation for civilization through procreation. Bacon was terrific fumbling with Cooper's now famous line "I don't know" when Walker/Pitt asked how gays getting married impacted heterosexual marriage and procreation.

Perhaps the biggest casting hoot of all was the very liberal Martin Sheen playing the very conservative Ted Olson. I can just imagine the spinning heads of all those Federalist Society members for whom Martin Sheen is one of Hollywood-elite - any farther Left and you'd smack up against Communism. And yet when Sheen delivered Olson's closing at the trial, you could hear a pin drop in the huge theater. It was the perfect transcendence of the political divide. Afterwards, Ted Olson said he only wished he could have delivered that passionate a closing himself. “I wish I was that good,” Olson said. “He can do it in a way that you can’t do it in court, but the fact is that it is the words that made the difference.”

The words and the embodiment of the character. Nowhere was that more moving that in “Glee” actor Chris Colfer's portrayal of Ryan Kendall, an expert witness for the plaintiffs in Perry v Schwarzenegger (now Perry v Brown) who testified about being forced to undergo so-called reparative therapy to be converted from gay to straight by the odious and discredited NARTH and Dr. Nicolosi.

Chris Cofler at rehersal (Photo courtesy AFER via Greg Hernandez)

Just as Clooney and Pitt may have drawn YouTube audience members in to see the play about Prop 8 who might not have seen or heard or cared about Prop 8 - Colfer might have drawn in the Gleeks. And if that's the case, they got to see what happens to a kid when parents are worse than demeaning, pushing and slushy-throwing high school bullies. Just the way Colfer sat in that chair - his body language, his demeanor - spoke volumes about the hurt caused by the antigay animus at the center of the Prop 8 trial.

Jane Lynch as NOM's Maggie Gallegher (Photo by Alex J. Berliner/ABImages)

And speaking of bullying - another inspired bit of casting was having tall skinny openly gay Jane Lynch play short, stocky National Organization for Marriage (NOM) head Maggie Gallagher. A more contradictory, more blustery Sue Sylvester – without the heart we all know lurks deep within the Glee cheerleading coach. I only wish Black had managed to get in the scene of Judge Walker admonishing Gallagher to take her bare feet off the courtroom bench before the trial started. That moment caught the sheer disdain Gallagher had for the entire trial. But Lynch trampling all over Freedom to Marry's Evan Wolfson, played by Cleve Jones, during a TV "debate" was quintessential Maggie - and her protestations that she's not a "hater" got some of the biggest laughs of the night.

John C. Reilly as David Blankenhorn with George Clooney and Martin Sheen looking on (Photo by Alex J. Berliner/ABImages)

Also hysterical was John C. Reilly in his exquisite representation of David Blankenhorn, head of the Institute of American Values. A probably earnest man who bought the lavish praise heaped on him by the conservative antigay right wing for his supposedly scholarly books, Blankenhorn stumbled and fumbled on the witness stand trying to salvage some dignity as David Boies forced him to confront the contradictions between what is true and factual and the inaccuracies he has heretofore promulgated as "truth" about same sex couples.

"I believe homophobia is a real presence in our society," Blankenhorn testified. "We would be more American on the day we permit same-sex marriage than the day before."

Ted Olson used the Blankenhorn comment in his closing argument to show that even the Prop 8 proponents' only witness agreed with the plaintiffs: "We would be more American on the day we permit same-sex marriage than the day before."

George Takei as William Tan; Kevin Bacon in the background (Photo by Alex J. Berliner/ABImages)

One more fascinating juxtaposition in casting: dignified gay Japanese American role model George Takei played sniveling antigay Dr. William Tan, whose video deposition is posted on the district court's website. Takei was perfect in portraying Tan's incredulous belief that the antigay information he spread during the Prop 8 campaign was true because it came from the Internet. Clooney played to the audience, saying, "Tan went on the lamb" rather than face him (Boies) again.

Martin Sheen, George Clooney, Jamie Lee Curtis, Christine Lahti, Matt Bomer, Brad Pitt, Matt Morrison, Kevin Bacon (Photo by Alex J. Berliner/ABImages)

Aside from the legal drama centering around Olson/Sheen, Boies/Clooney, and Cooper/Bacon, the play's critically important parallel-plot revolves around the plaintiffs – Paul Katami (played by Matt Morrison) and Jeff Zarrillo (played by newly out Matt Bomer) - who sweetly held hands at times - and short-haired Kris Perry (played by long-haired Christine Lahti) and long-haired Sandy Stier (played by short-haired Jamie Lee Curtis) with their two teenage sons, Jansen Panettiere as Elliott Perry and Bridger Zadina as Spencer Perry.

According to the Times, Black changed the New York script to create more "domestic scenes" with the plaintiffs. And this is where Black really made an important, albeit perhaps subliminal, impact.

The play opens with the "Princes" ad used so effectively by the Prop 8 proponents to engender the dark, fearful possibility of school kids being taught about homosexuality without parental permission.

The '8' audience chuckled slightly at how outdated the ad seems. But the ad is still being used in antigay initiatives fights now around the country - including in North Carolina where that May 8 ballot measure would strip away all legal recognition, even domestic partnerships.

When the commercial ends, the lights come up on the Perry family talking about the kids doing their homework and playing soccer. The kids can't understand the trial: "We thought our parents were married," says one. They have a hard time understanding how their parents are going to testify against their own government.

That scene is the nugget of the trial: the Prop 8 proponents tried to frighten voters into the scary prospect of "what would happen if" kids were taught about gays - versus actual kids living in a loving gay household.

The audience erupted into the soulful applause of appreciation as the rest of the cast entered. I've felt this kind of stranger-bonding before - during the anti-Vietnam War movement, at those early AIDS Project Los Angeles Commitment to Life tributes, and on a much smaller scale, when Barry Krost and Alan Hergott threw the first Hollywood party for LGBT civil rights in 1991. People of all colors and stations in life felt a sense of camaraderie for a higher purpose. And in the case of '8'- we had the added benefit of having a shared theatrical catharsis.

Black used his talents to shape the play in a way that was not all dry legal point-counter-points but added humor and human drama into the mix. Kris Perry says she's nervous before the trial: "Personally, I've never sued Arnold Schwarzenegger before." Katami on the stand: "I love Jeff more than myself." Ryan Kendall, who contemplated suicide because of NARTH, on how kids don't want to go to conversion programs: "I was just as gay as when I started." (Much applause) Sandy Stiers, who was previously in a straight relationship, on how she knows her relationship with Kris Perry is not just a passing fad: "I'm 47 years old. I've fallen in love one time and it's to Kris." And Kris talked about all the time and energy it takes for a gay person to be "likable" in the potentially dangerous heterosexual world.

Matt Morrison as Paul Katami (Photo by Alex J. Berliner/ABImages)

Black also juxtaposed a Prop 8 commercial about the "fear" of losing religious freedoms with Katami/Morrison sharing an incident where Katami was stuck in LA traffic next to a guy with a Prop 8 bumper sticker. "If you put my nieces on the stand, they would say I'm the cool uncle," Katami/Morrison said. "The thought that you would have to 'protect' them from me....No matter how proud you are, you feel ashamed in that moment."

These are all important spokes to the center of the wheel - the regulation of marriage by the government. Cooper insisted the government has an "over-arching" interest because "responsible procreation is at the heart of the state's regulation." Vaughn/Pitt asked what about couples who don't procreate or where there has been a miscarriage - should they not be considered married?

Brad Pitt and Kevin Bacon (Photo by Alex J. Berliner/ABImages)

Vaughn/Pitt: "I'm asking you to tell me how [same sex marriage] would harm opposite-sex marriages. …"

Cooper/Beacon: "(After fumbling) Your Honor, my answer is: I don't know. I don't know."

Vaughn/Pitt: "What testimony in this case supports the proposition?"

Cooper/Beacon: "…your Honor, you don’t have to have evidence for this …"

Vaughn/Pitt: "I don’t have to have evidence?"

Laughter, laughter, applause, applause.

Bridger Zadina as Spencer and Jansen Panettiere as Elliott with Jamie Lee Curtis as Sandy Stiers and Christine Lahti as Kris Perry (Photo by Alex J. Berliner/ABImages)

One particularly moving moment was during a break from testimony where Blankenhorn had talked about "irresponsible procreation," the kids asked: "What does that mean?" Perry/Lahti explained how she wanted to have children after her sister died of brain cancer; how she went to parenting classes for lesbians and took fertility medication, and had her two sons in 1994 by C-section. "You were not accidents," she told them.

Boies/Clooney talked about how "junk science doesn't hold up" in court. "The witness stand is a lonely place to be....We put fear and prejudice on trial and we won."

I took lousy notes during Olson/Clooney's closing arguments because I was so wrapped up in it – so I'm posting the section from the transcript that I believe Black used (this link also has video of Olson if you want to compare). Now imagine a passionate Martin Sheen saying this in a packed, hushed theater:

Martin Sheen as Ted Olson delivering the closing arguments (Photo by Alex J. Berliner/ABImages)

Now, you can have a religious view that this is not acceptable. You can have a religious view — it was true in the Loving case. The argument was made that it’s God’s will that people of different races not be married. It’s in the briefs and it was in the testimony in this trial; that people honestly felt that it was wrong to mix the races; that it would dilute the value of the race and do all of these terrible things.

People honestly felt that way, but they were — they were permitted under the Constitution to think that, but they are not permitted under the Constitution to put that law –that view into the law and to put that view into the Constitution of their state in order to discriminate against individuals.

I think, your Honor, that this law is discriminatory.

The evidence is overwhelming that it imposes great social harm on individuals who are our equals. They are members of our society. They pay their taxes. They want to form a household. They want to raise their children in happiness and in the same way that their neighbors do.

We are imposing great damage on them by the institution of the State of California saying they are different and they cannot have the happiness, they cannot have the privacy, they cannot have the liberty, they cannot have the intimate association in the context of a marriage that the rest of our citizens do. We have demonstrated during this trial that that causes grave and permanent, irreparable and totally unnecessary harm, because we are withholding from them a part of the institution of marriage that we hold — one of the language of one of those Supreme Court decisions is on the point — intimacy to the point of being sacred; that right of marriage in the context of the intimate relationship. We are withheld holding that from them, hurting them and we are doing no good. If we had a reason, a really good reason for inflicting all of that harm, that might be another matter, but there is no reason that I heard.

Preserving the institution of marriage. We’ve improved the institution of marriage when we allowed interracial couples to get married. We have improved the institution of marriage when we allowed women to be equal partners in the marital relationship. We have improved the institution of marriage when we didn’t put artificial barriers based upon race. And we will improve the institution of marriage and we will be more American, according to Mr. Blankenhorn, when we eliminate this terrible stigma.

There is 14 Supreme Court decisions that talk about the right to marriage. There is the Romer case, and you know what that holds, and the Lawrence v Texas case and the testimony of all of these expert witnesses and the testimony of the plaintiffs. That erects an insurmountable barrier to the proponents of this proposition.

It will not hurt Californians. It will benefit Californians. But as long as it doesn’t hurt Californians to get rid of harmful stigma in their Constitution that’s labeling people into classes, then it’s unconstitutional.

Dustin Lance Black ended ’8′ somewhat where he began: with Kris and Sandy talking to Spencer and Elliot about how long they will have to wait for the Prop 8 ordeal to be over. Elliot says: “I was crying because I saw my mom up there fighting for us. I’m glad I heard it – but I just hate that I had to. I love you, mom.”

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