“8” makes its New Haven debut

This cool cat wrote "8."

On Oct. 22 I sat in the University Theater minutes before a reading of the play “8” was set to begin. The stage was bare, save for a few folding chairs arranged in rows on each side and one long table in the middle. Actors were trickling onto the stage, while several members of the audience continued their conversations. Had it already started? The lights dimmed, more actors filed in and the reading began.

Dustin Lance Black, screenwriter of “J. Edgar” and the Academy Award-winning “Milk,” based his new play “8” off of the trial to repeal California’s Proposition 8. When California voters passed the referendum in 2008, it officially banned same-sex marriage in the state. The majority of Black’s play consists of a verbatim reading of the court case, known now as Perry v. Brown, which was banned from being broadcast when it took place. Black weaved his own theatrical elements into the play, such as intimate conversations between two plaintiffs and their sons. Students, faculty and staff at the Yale School of Drama collaborated with the American Foundation for Equal Rights and Broadway Impact to bring the controversy and the emotion of this trial to the University Theater stage, under the direction of Sonja Berggren.

The play opened with an introduction to the family of Kris Perry and Sandy Steir (Cole Lewis DRA ’14 and Jennifer Lagundino DRA ’13). They were portrayed as your average American family: two loving parents and two teenage sons, concerned with making it to soccer practice on time and keeping up with schoolwork. The only thing not so typical about this family was that the two loving parents were both women. The audience followed these two women into the courtroom where they stood bravely alongside gay couple Jeff Zarrillo and Paul Katami (Cornelius Davidson DRA ’15 and Justin Taylor DRA ’13) to oppose Prop 8. The trial brought forward many emotional testimonies from Perry, Steir, Zarrillo and Katami, along with more professional opinions from expert witnesses such as Dr. Nancy Cott (Victoria Nolan, the managing director of the Yale Rep and deputy dean at the School of Drama), author of “Public Vows: A History of the Marriage and the Nation.”

As the reading progressed, it became clear that the initial confusion during the opening was intentional. The nearly propless stage and the uncertainty as to whether or not the play had commenced were deliberate techniques aimed at ensconcing the audience in this courtroom drama. And they worked. I was in that courtroom. I was on the edge of my seat with every twist and turn of that trial.

Knowing that the screenplay was based almost entirely on quotes from the trial, I expected to leave the theater with a better understanding about the fight against Prop 8 — what I did not expect was to be drawn into the trial. The bare stage transported audience members to that courtroom and refused to let them out. There was no change of scenery, no respite from the trial. The actors didn’t give us much of a break either. Not only did they walk the audience through the intricacies of the legal proceedings, they made the audience a part of the trial.

Passion radiated from every single performer on that stage, from the lesbian couple to the expert witnesses. Even the lawyers displayed a certain amount of uncharacteristic emotion. When Lewis, as Kris Perry, turned to her son with quivering voice and trembling hands, to tell him that he wasn’t a accident, that their family was not an unnatural grouping of people, her frustration was tangible.

Ryan Kendall (Mitchell Winter DRA ’14), a fact witness for the case, enraptured the audience as he described his realizations at a young age that he was gay, and recanted the horrors of the reparative therapy he underwent. When he explained with a smile that he was “just as gay as when he started [the therapy],” the audience smiled along with him. When he admitted that if he had to continue with the therapy he “would have probably killed [himself],” the theater grew ominously silent.

It was clear that the audience was very invested in the play — there was laughter, gasps and sighs of disgust and relief. The audience’s devotion and interest in both the play and the issue of gay marriage became even more evident after the play ended, however, when a group of panelists from various disciplines opened the play up for discussion. One couple who had come all the way from Maine discussed their home state’s version of Prop 8, asking if a Supreme Court ruling on Prop 8 could have any effect in Maine. Many audience members expressed a feeling of dissatisfaction with the idea that the definition of marriage will evolve with time, wanting to take a more proactive approach on the issue. Jeannie O’Hare, a panelist and the chair of the Playwriting Department at the School of Drama, expressed similar frustrations regarding her experience entering a civil partnership under British law, a kind of legal union which she deems “a secondary form of equal marriage.”

“It does take a fight. It’s not their [same-sex couples] spiritual lives at stake,” she said. “It’s their lives.”

Past iterations of Black’s play have taken place on Broadway and on Ebell of Los Angeles, with celebrities such as George Clooney, Marisa Tomei, Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman being cast as part of these well-publicized productions.

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