by Richard Dodds
It was 2007, and with the 30th anniversary of Harvey Milk's assassination approaching, the artistic director of San Diego's Diversionary Theatre thought the date should be commemorated. Dan Kirsch turned to Patricia Loughrey, a playwright and colleague, to create a new piece that the veteran LGBT theater would unveil, and that would return one small spotlight to the Milk legacy.
Meanwhile, in Hollywood, years of talk about a Milk biopic were finally turning to reality, and by the time Loughrey had completed an early draft of her play, the movie Milk was already on screens across the country. Loughrey, "restless" that her play might duplicate what the movie had to say, bought a ticket to Milk that led her to create a very different work from that early draft.
"I feel the play and the movie as sort of companion pieces, and it was very helpful for me to see the movie and to know what I could add to what was already being shared," Loughrey said by phone recently. The result, Dear Harvey, had its debut at the Diversionary Theatre in 2009, and it has been staged in about a dozen other cities since then. San Francisco will finally be added to that list when New Conservatory Theatre Center's production opens on Jan. 25.
Loughrey, now a Long Beach resident, built the play around interviews with Milk's contemporaries and through Milk's own words. But this is an ensemble piece with a cast of six in director Allen Sawyer's NCTC production, with each performer playing multiple roles. The stage notes offer directors a certain amount of leeway, but they specifically state that no single actor should be assigned all of Milk's dialogue.
"When we decided that I would interview people as the basis of the play," Loughrey said, "I was living in San Diego, and didn't have any sense of access to people who had known Harvey. I put up a flyer at the gay community center in San Diego, asking if anyone had memories of how Harvey had impacted their lives and wanted to share them for a play. I got just one phone call, but it ended up opening a series of doors that would let me write the play."
That phone call was from Nicole Murray-Ramirez, currently a San Diego human rights commissioner, who was active in the Imperial Court System during the years of Milk's ascendency to public office. Murray-Ramirez is featured in the play, and helped Loughrey connect with Stuart Milk, Harvey's gay nephew who founded the Harvey Milk Foundation.
"Speaking with Stuart broadened my sense of what the play could do, because he shared stories from the family, and I started seeing the play as both a remembrance and a way to bring our history to young people and the public, because it isn't carried in the history books," said Loughrey, who has been active in LGBT causes for years.
Loughrey's basic criteria for identifying the subjects she would interview were "people who knew him or were affected by him and their lives were changed because of him." In addition to Murray-Ramirez, those represented on stage include Tom Ammiano, Jackie Grover, Robin Tyler, Cleve Jones, Anne Kronenberg, John Laird, Christine Kehoe, Mary Stockton, Dottie Wine, Allan Pettit, and Daniel Nicoletta.
Photographer Nicoletta worked at Milk's camera story in the Castro and chronicled on film Milk's path from community organizer to San Francisco's first openly gay supervisor. His photos have been licensed for use in productions of Dear Harvey. The Bay Area Reporter is also part of the story, after Loughrey received permission to quote from the columns Milk wrote for the newspaper. The score by Thomas Hodges is provided, and the composer becomes part of the story.
"Thomas Hodges was a student in one of my playwriting classes at San Diego State, and was a young gay man who came of age at a time when it seemed he was completely entitled to it," Loughrey said. "And during that time he experienced a hate crime, and he was shaken to the core. I had mentioned I was working on this project, and I knew he was a composer and needed an outlet to learn about his own history. Tom appeared in several productions, getting up from the piano and reading from a letter he wrote, and the letter is still in the play. In that moment, the play shifts from past tense to present tense."
At early performances, the audience was often invited to stay for a discussion, and, Loughrey said, "It almost became like an extension of the play. Invariably, there was one person who had never heard of Harvey Milk, and invariably there was one person who actually knew Harvey." Loughrey will be at the matinee performance on Feb. 17 at NCTC to participate in a talkback with the audience.
That kind of audience involvement is what helps set up Dear Harvey as a different experience from the film Milk. "It's not that I have some noble character that I didn't feel in any way competitive with the movie, which of course reaches a far broader audience," Loughrey said. "It's just that Harvey was so generous that you feel like everybody should be telling his story. The play gives the audience a chance to feel like they are sitting in a room with a bunch of people who knew and loved Harvey, and it's almost like he's there in the room, too."