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From a California courtroom to Broadway: A reading of '8'

September 20, 2011 |  4:15 pm

In the theater, comedies tend to end with a marriage—not a civil union.  Monday night at the world premiere of "8," the new theater piece by Dustin Lance Black, the Oscar-winning screenwriter of "Milk," a sense of inevitability—that the story of California's Proposition 8 will ultimately end in marriage—filled the Eugene O'Neill Theatre.

(In a tasty bit of irony, given the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' efforts to pass the 2008 law banning gay weddings in California, the Eugene O'Neill is home most nights to the musical "The Book of Mormon.")

The one-night only reading drew an impressive crowd, represented both in the audience and on stage.  Certainly there were celebrities -- Morgan Freeman, Campbell Brown, Fran Drescher, Bradley Whitford, Ellen Barkin -- in the house for this fundraiser, but most of the attention focused on the real-life participants.  Kristin Perry & Sandy Stier and Jeff Zarrillo & Paul Katami were the two couples who were plaintiffs in Perry vs. Schwarzenegger.

Also in the audience were other figures in the case and the Prop. 8 battles, from plaintiffs' attorneys Theodore Olsen and David Boies to composer Marc Shaiman, whose satirical video “Prop 8: The Musical” was widely viewed after the election.  Walking into the theater, Shaiman insisted he was a footnote in the Prop. 8 story—indeed, Black’s piece focuses only on the district court trial, not the 2008 election  (although a few pro-Prop. 8 commercials were shown and the already dated cheesiness drew huge laughs from the sold-out audience).

The 100-minute dramatic piece is in essence an oral history, more journalistic in nature than dramatic, and as such “8” feels like a warmup for a more fleshed-out script or play to come. The presence of Larry Kramer, whose 1985 play “The Normal Heart”  dramatized the early years of AIDS, was a reminder that plays written quickly to spur action can have a lasting influence. 

Part of the reason Black wrote “8” was the U.S. Supreme Court's ban on live television coverage of the trial.  As Olsen joked before curtain, this may have actually hurt the anti-gay marriage side. “Trials are long,” he quipped, adding the reason courtroom dramas can have much more impact than the real cases: “You can watch 12 days in an hour and a half.  That’s the genius of art.”

Coincidentally, earlier in the day a federal judge ordered that tapes of the Perry trial be made public. (They can be viewed starting Sept. 30.)  If the testimonies read by Christine Lahti (as Kris Perry) and Cheyenne Jackson (as Paul Katami) are any indication, the videos should make for powerful viewing. (Jackson was flashing his own wedding ring at the after-party, thanks to New York State’s recent gay marriage law.)

Boies and Olsen (who famously argued on opposite sides of Bush v. Gore in 2000), are accustomed to their words being quoted, but for them, the theater definitely trumps reality.  “The power of live actors makes a big difference,” Olsen said.  As evidence, when John Lithgow, who played the former solicitor general, read Olsen’s closing argument, the crowd burst into extended applause. 

Boies, an avowed fan of the movies “Inherit the Wind” and “To Kill a Mockingbird,” said after the show that oratory that works in the theater wouldn’t work in the modern courtroom.  That’s why politics plays so well in the theater he says. “The words may be exactly the same, but when Morgan Freeman [who played Boies in “8”] says them, they sound so much better.”

--James C. Taylor, in New York

Above: Back row of seats: Kate Shindle, K. Todd Freeman, Stephen Spinella, Anthony Edwards, Jay Armstrong Johnson, Rob Reiner. Middle row: Ken Leung, Jayne Houdyshell, Ben Rosenfield, Campbell Brown. Front row: Ellen Barkin, Bob Balaban, Morgan Freeman, Cheyenne Jackson, John Lithgow, Christine Lahti. Credit: Diana Walker.