Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 12 / 22 March 2018

Drama in and
out of the courtroom


Screenwriter Dustin Lance Black, who won an Oscar for Milk, has written and will perform in 8 at ACT, his play about the trial that overturned Prop 8. (Photo: Courtesy UCLA)
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While the movie Milk was being filmed on the streets of San Francisco, the campaigns for and against Proposition 8 began to engage and enrage the filmmakers who had been so focused on their own job of telling the story of slain supervisor Harvey Milk.

"When it started looking like the numbers weren't going our way, it was frustrating for all of us because here we were making a movie about a strategy that had worked 30 years earlier, and I was watching the campaign for 'No on 8,' and it was a disaster," said screenwriter Dustin Lance Black, who won an Oscar for his Milk script. "There were no gay people telling their own stories, and at the heart of Harvey Milk's campaign was storytelling. Tell your own personal story."

Black, 38, has never been shy about telling his own story as a former devout Mormon who is now a devout advocate for LGBT rights in both his professional and personal lives. His passions have coalesced around Prop 8's journey through the courts that could likely wind up on the Supreme Court's docket in the current session. He was a spectator at the 2010 trial in US District Court that overturned Prop 8, which would have amended the state constitution to forbid same-sex marriage, and felt the public should see what the Prop 8 defendants successfully sued to have blocked from television broadcast.

The result was 8, a 90-minute condensation of the trial and moments of out-of-court drama that was presented as staged readings in New York and Los Angeles with star-studded casts that raised money for the American Foundation for Equal Rights and Broadway Impact. The complete L.A. performance featuring such luminaries as Brad Pitt, George Clooney, Kevin Bacon, John C. Reilly, Jane Lynch, and Matthew Morrison was streamed live on YouTube, where it is still available for viewing.

Dustin Lance Black appeared on stage after the L.A. performance of 8, with cast members Kevin Bacon, John C. Reilly, Jane Lynch, and George Takei. (Photo: Courtesy AFER)

"After the New York and L.A. readings, and we had raised our money so the case can go forward, I gave the play away for free to anyone who wants it," Black said from his Los Angeles home, where he is currently working on screenplays for directors Ron Howard, Robert Zemeckis, and J.J. Abrams. When ACT picked it up for an Oct. 7 fundraising staged reading, the theater asked Black if he would appear in his own play for the first time.

"I dodged the idea for a bit, and then decided it would be a challenge, and I'm always up for that," he said. "I'm going to be playing Ryan Kendell. It's one of my favorite moments in the play, and the most emotional, but I promise I'm not going to be as good as Chris Colfer was in the role."

In Los Angeles, Colfer, of Glee fame, played Kendell, 25 at the time of the trial, who testified to his belief that his homosexuality was inborn, and about the horrors of being sent as a teen by his parents for "reparative" therapy to the National Association for the Research and Therapy of Homosexuality, better known as NARTH. "I would rather have had an abortion than a gay son," said his mother, according to Kendell's testimony.

Other members of the ACT cast are a mix of prominent actors and local luminaries. They include veteran LGBT activist Cleve Jones, Cal Shakes Artistic Director Jonathan Moscone, actress Holland Taylor (Two and a Half Men), Speaker of the Assembly John A. Perez, SF AIDS Foundation's Neil Giuliano, and actor Luke MacFarlane (Brothers & Sisters). Proceeds from the reading will benefit the American Foundation for Equal Rights and LGBT youth in ACT's ACTsmart outreach program. Tickets are $50 and $100, and are available at

Dustin Lance Black made an impassioned plea for LGBT equality when he accepted his Oscar for Milk in 2009.

If you watch the YouTube video of the L.A. performance of 8, you'll see how the vocally enthusiastic audience brings its images of the celebrity actors to their characters even before they have spoken a word. All you need do is plop John C. Reilly into a chair as defense witness David Blankenhorn, and he gets a big laugh. (That his actual testimony defending traditional marriage was a disaster further fueled the humorous reactions.)

But, says playwright Black, you don't need the celebrity connections for the material to work. "I went to a high school last week in Woodland Hills to see its production, and I didn't know if high schoolers could do such dense material, but they hit it out of the park," Black said. "And this little high school kid doing the Blankenhorn role had the crowd losing its mind with laughter. It's lovely that American audiences find humor in the words, but 30 years ago people wouldn't have found Blankenhorn's words so ridiculous."

The attorneys defending Prop 8 had an admittedly troubled case after the state declined to defend it and many proposed expert witnesses opted not to testify. "First these witnesses had to go through a deposition process, and they got a taste of how their quote-unquote evidence was going to be grilled publically and while they were under oath," Black said. "They feared they were going to be defamed."

Asked why he drew his personal line in the sand over Prop 8 and same-sex marriage, Black paused. "No one has ever asked me that before, isn't that funny?" A longer pause ensued before Black offered his response.

"I think my generation had become incredibly complacent, thinking the world must be like Will & Grace, but then they saw our rights being stripped away and, boy, it woke up a new generation of activists. I saw that most clearly here in L.A. the night after Prop 8 passed, and the group that had been leading the fight was up on podiums blaming people and yelling and screaming. And a whole group of young people marched away from the folks who had failed us and took to the streets in a very public and proud way. The only thing I had to compare it to was San Francisco in the 70s, and I was seeing the energy I had only read about. I thought, my goodness, we're back."


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