About Face Theatre revisits the assassination that changed gay rights.
“As president of the Board of Supervisors, it is my duty to make this announcement: Mayor George Moscone…and Supervisor Harvey Milk…have been shot and killed. The suspect is Supervisor Dan White.”
Sen. Dianne Feinstein issued that statement to an unsuspecting crowd waiting outside of San Francisco’s City Hall on November 27, 1978. If we could freeze that moment in time, we might see it as the beginning of a shift in the way in which gay equality impacts American culture; something we still feel in this country 30 years later.
The previous election year had been a significant one. Dan White, an ex-firefighter, cop and U.S. Army veteran, was elected as city supervisor to represent District 8, a mostly working-class neighborhood. Also sitting on the board was Harvey Milk, the first openly gay elected official of any large city in the country. Milk had run four times previously and lost. His victory signaled a landmark event for the city’s large gay community. Presiding as mayor was George Moscone, who himself won a narrow victory over his conservative opponent.
In his short time as city supervisor, White was unable to make significant progress and resigned in frustration. He later changed his mind, but to no avail; Moscone decided to appoint a replacement supervisor to District 8. A humiliated White loaded his .38 pistol and drove to City Hall, climbed into the building through a window (so as to avoid metal detectors), calmly walked into Moscone’s office and fired five rounds into him. He then proceeded to Milk’s office, where he did the same.
But that’s not the most interesting part of the story. At his trial, White was found guilty only of voluntary manslaughter and was given a light seven-year sentence with an opportunity for parole. The gay community rioted, the police rioted back, and the schism between red and blue state America grew even wider.
That’s why About Face Theatre is resurrecting Execution of Justice, Emily Mann’s 1985 historical retelling of White’s trial. Through the course of Mann’s play, a docudrama carefully stitched together using courtroom transcripts and real-life testimonies, it becomes obvious that White isn’t on trial at all, it’s Milk’s character and the scapegoating of the gay community. It’s something that’s so relevant today it’s almost chilling.
“The gay issue, as we know from the last election, was an issue that divided a lot of people and was able to be exploited particularly on the part of conservatives,” says director Gary Griffin. “This is similar to what happened in this case. A lot of people said that had [White] only killed Moscone, he would’ve gotten the death penalty. But because he killed Milk, the issue was able to be exploited.”
Griffin has long wanted to stage Justice and found a common thread with About Face’s commitment to showcasing challenging works. He remembers the trial and is surprised that its been obscured by history.
“One of the things that really disturbed me was how many young people have never heard this story and don’t know about Harvey Milk, don’t know about Dan White, don’t know that it happened,” Griffin says. “I think it’s an important part of American history that should be revisited.”
History lesson notwithstanding, the implications in Justice are huge. The play speaks volumes about our willingness as Americans to let pundits and politicians tell us which side to take. Justice beautifully articulates this growing complacency.
“This was a moment in American culture that I think changed us,” Griffin says. “You can see clearly a failure to communicate and it ultimately erupted, and I think that’s very true of America.”
Execution of Justice opens Wednesday 10 at Victory Gardens Theater.