An ensemble of Northwestern University actors staged the first Illinois performance of the play “8” on Tuesday night. Written by Academy Award-winner Dustin Lance Black of Milk and J. Edgar fame, the production brings actual court testimony from the Proposition 8 trial to the stage after the U.S. Supreme Court blocked broadcast of California’s marriage ban trial.
The 85 minute production ended with a panel discussion moderated by play director Spenser Neiman, and featured local publisher Tracy Baim, Anthony Martinez, executive director of The Civil Rights Agenda, and Brian Richardson, director of public affairs at Center on Halsted.
Licensed to the Evanston campus by the American Foundation for Equal Rights and Broadway Impact, the one-night performance at the Ethel M. Barber Theatre featured 16 local actors. Marek Pavlovski and Robin Christiansen led the cast as attorneys Ted Olson and David Boies, former Bush v. Gore foes who joined forces to represent two gay couples against Proposition 8, a California constitutional ban of same-sex marriage. Matt Kuyawa played traditional marriage defender Charles Cooper, and “Law & Order” veteran Daniel Cantor took on the role of Chief Judge Vaughn Walker.
The play is an adaptation of 12 days of recorded testimony inside a San Francisco federal courtroom. Openly gay couples Sandy Stier and Kristin Perry (played by Hannah Dawe and Sam Beach) and Jeff Zarrillo and Paul Katami (played by A.J. Roy and Jack Mitchell) filed suit after California voters rewrote the state constitution in 2008 to ban same-sex marriage.
Just under 100 audience members sat through the drama, often laughing when characters representing opponents of marriage equality made impassioned but irrational arguments.
Campaign ads aired in California against same-sex marriage were played between scenes, and were met with loud groans and shaking heads. Many were caught teary-eyed during an exchange between Stier and Perry with their sons (played by Ben Estus and Ed Wasserman), talking about the challenge of having to hear testimony that insisted their two-mother household was not a real family.
Baim, Martinez and Richardson reacted to questions from the audience after the ensemble took their bows. They spoke about the intent of the play, related court cases outside of California and analysis of how LGBT public policies are being shaped in various states.
Baim faced questions regarding the President Obama’s positions on marriage equality saying, “I think it was an inevitability that a lot of people didn’t think would happen unless he got a second term. But the coming out of his peers to him made a difference.”
Baim said the President realized “there was not a way to bureaucratically deal with this controversial word called ‘marriage.’”
A pair of audience members asked the panelists for more information regarding companies that supported the same-sex marriage ban. Richardson encouraged them of the impact LGBT consumer spending has on how corporations decide whether or not they choose sides on LGBT issues.
He pressed that LGBT Americans need to educate their straight friends and family.
“Support companies that do support equality,” he said. “Voting with your dollars is such a huge issue. The ‘Pink Dollar’ is very powerful. But the dollar of straight allies really does make a difference.”
Baim was asked for a list of companies who supported defense of Proposition 8. She explained that while small companies did help fund the campaign, not a lot of major national brands weighed in.
“I think the lesson learned from recent anti-gay campaigns is that most corporate brands that are consumer brands are going to stay out of a lot of these things because they realize they are a consumer brand,” Baim said. “There’s no win-win on either side of this issue.”
Martinez answered questions regarding possible outcomes of Proposition 8 in the federal courts, noting the case is specific to California and will most likely be ruled to that effect. In addition, Martinez mentioned that Illinois has a low that only allows marriage between a man and a woman and that there are efforts underway to change that.
“We have an equal marriage bill in Illinois that currently probably does not have the support to pass,” Martinez said. “Electing pro-equality legislators is one of the most important things we can do to get to marriage equality here in Illinois.”
“There are a lot of moderate Democrats, specifically in central and downstate Illinois, that still need to be educated, still need to be brought around on this issue. To get marriage equality in our state, it’s going to take some time, hard work, getting out the vote to elect pro-equality legislators.
Dave Bentlin of Prairie Pride Coalition drove over 150 miles from Bloomington to watch the play.
“I wanted to see it performed live just as we gear up for our own production,” he told Chicago Phoenix. “We’ll be on stage at Illinois State University on September 8.”
Steven McDonald of Glencoe talked briefly about coming to see the play.
“I don’t remember where I saw the announcement for this production but I really wanted to see it,” McDonald said. “I’m also a Dustin Lance Black fan.”
Producer Desiree Staples shared with a few in the lobby, “This is just great. I’m very happy.”
Three other Illinois playhouses have been licensed to stage the courtroom drama. Station Theatre in Urbana will draw the curtains on July 2 and 3. The District Theatre in Rock Island will perform on July 7. Winneshiek Players of Freeport opens its doors to an audience on March 2, 2013.