Theater meets trial with ‘8’


Tonight, the School of Drama will stage a one-night reading of Dustin Lance Black’s play “8” in the University Theater.

“8” is based on Perry v. Brown, the trial that in February struck down Proposition 8, California’s ban on same-sex marriage. The play was simultaneously brought to the school’s attention by students Jabari Brisport DRA ’14 and Chris Bannow DRA ’14 and “Broadway Impact,” a marriage equality activist organization. Together with the American Foundation for Equal Rights, “Broadway Impact” seeks to license and help coordinate readings of “8” as widely as possible — over 100 productions have already taken place nationwide — in an effort to propel community conversations about marriage equality. Californian and former lawyer Sonja Berggren DRA ’13, who is currently a special research fellow at the School of Drama, will direct the reading.

Black, who won an Academy Award for writing the screenplay of the 2008 film “Milk,” was inspired to create “8” after the court prohibited the use of cameras in the courtroom. By incorporating large segments of the court transcripts, Black aimed to bring the trial’s events directly to audiences, said Lico Whitfield DRA ’13, one of “8”’s primary organizers.

But despite the use of courtroom documents, “8” is far from “dry,” Whitfield said, explaining that the play takes the “good parts” of a trial and infuses them with invented dramatic elements, such as private conversations between a lesbian couple and their twin sons or “journalistic cat fights” outside the courtroom. Berggren, however, added that for much of the play, adding drama is unnecessary.

“The trial itself has very nice theatrical moments,” Berggren said. “There’s nothing you have to do to it — it’s just there.”

“8” premiered on Broadway in 2011 and again in Los Angeles in 2012 with a celebrity-filled cast featuring Brad Pitt and George Clooney. Since then, Whitfield explained that the production has taken on the role of a community-centered, grassroots movement, a model the team at Yale has followed.

The large New Haven reading cast includes current drama school students, faculty and staff — including some who have not been on the stage in decades, if ever.

“People just came out of the woodwork to get involved,” Whitfield said.

Having such a diverse and not exclusively professional cast helps to advance Berggren’s vision for the show, she said. For her, the Los Angeles production was “actorly” to the point of feeling inauthentic.

“I want to make it feel like a court room, not a theater … I don’t want these to feel like characters, I want them to be people,” Berggren said.

While increasing the show’s believability, the mix of actors and non-actors nonetheless created obstacles stemming from their differences in training, Brisport said. Non-actors, for example, have spent less time developing skills like projecting one’s voice on the stage — and being heard in the enormous space of the University Theater is difficult.

The reading will be followed by a “talk-back” session where the audience will have an opportunity to discuss issues the play raises with members of the Yale community. Present will be law professor Robert Burt LAW ’64, Jeannie O’Hare, the chair of the Playwriting Department at the School of Drama, and Jared Gilbert DIV ’12. Joan Channick DRA ’89, the associate dean at the school, will moderate the discussion.

These discussion sessions, which are built into every reading of “8,” aim to create a conversation within that community and, ideally, to attract people from both sides of the debate, Whitfield said.

“The idea behind it is to have a rational conversation with those opposed to gay marriage, to ask, ‘What is your reasoning for that?’” Whitfield said, adding, “It’s not a protest. It’s a way to propel a conversation.”

Here at “The Gay Ivy,” however, Brisport said he does not anticipate the performance attracting many beyond the University’s own overwhelmingly liberal community. If any were to come from the other side of the aisle, he said he “would be really interested in hearing what they had to say,” and hopes the rest of the community would be able to engage in a respectful and productive conversation with them.

The event is free and open to the public.

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