CFA Brings Execution of Justice to Wimberly
Trial of Harvey Milk’s assassin under microscope
It was a trial that riveted the nation. In November 1978, Dan White strode into San Francisco City Hall and shot to death Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk, the first openly gay person to hold public office in the city. Despite the cold-blooded nature of the crimes, White was acquitted of premeditated murder and sentenced to a mere seven-year prison term. A former city supervisor as well as an Army veteran, firefighter, and ex-cop, he was paroled in 1984 after serving just five years; he committed suicide a year and a half later.
The College of Fine Arts is bringing to the stage Emily Mann’s Execution of Justice, which puts White’s legal proceedings under a microscope and finds the system as guilty as the murderer. The play runs through February 24 at the Calderwood Pavilion’s Virginia Wimberly Theatre.
Seared into the history of the struggle for gay rights as well as the annals of justice, the case inspired the Academy Award–winning 1985 documentary The Times of Harvey Milk and Gus Van Sant’s 2008 feature film Milk, starring Sean Penn in an Oscar-winning turn as the charismatic supervisor and Josh Brolin as White. The two-act documentary drama Execution of Justice, part of Mann’s four-play collection Testimonies, was staged on Broadway in 1986 after several regional productions and was made into a television film in 1999.
Execution re-creates a “fractured world,” says director Elaine Vaan Hogue (CFA’97), a CFA assistant professor of acting and directing and head of theater arts at the School of Theatre. Mann’s play draws accurately from the trial transcript, and thus “gives voice not only to those witnesses summoned to the court but to, as they’re named in the play, a chorus of uncalled witnesses,” Vaan Hogue says.
The play falls into CFA’s annual keyword initiative, which this year explores the theme of violence.
“In our production the audience becomes part of the play, playing the roles of both judge and juror, bearing witness to the unfolding of these tragic events and calling into question our individual and collective moral conscience,” says Vaan Hogue. The CFA production will gather the audience into the proceedings by seating some spectators on the stage, she says, with the action occasionally spilling from the stage into the house. Vaan Hogue last season directed the Boston Playwrights’ Theatre production of Walking the Volcano, by the late CFA professor Jon Lipsky, and portrayed Helen in BU’s Boston Center for American Performance production of Athol Fugard’s The Road to Mecca.
Acting major Ian Geers (CFA’14), who plays White, first learned of the Moscone-Milk murders as “a blurb” in a high school history class. And he’d heard of the now-legendary “twinkie defense” that had White’s lawyer pleading for leniency because of his client’s alleged junk-food-induced dementia. White “is very much the all-American boy,” says Geers, who has developed some sympathy for, and understanding of, this family man from a “hyper-moral background” who was honorably discharged from the army and “consistently felt like an outcast.” The man is a study in contrasts, says Geers, whose feelings about White “go from anger to sadness to numbness, in minutes.” White “feels a huge pressure to be liked,” especially in light of Milk’s vision, charm, and energetic, loyal following. “Dan was wooden, awkward, a toy soldier,” Geers says. The part marks the first major dramatic role for the actor, who did background research by reading Randy Shilts’ The Mayor of Castro Street and studying news footage of White.
The play is populated by a cast of jurors, court officers, and witnesses for the people and the defense, as well as the Chorus of Uncalled Witnesses. White’s wife, Mary Ann, is played by Hayley Sherwood (CFA’14), an unnamed cop by Nick Carter (CFA’12), and the late activist drag queen Sister Boom Boom by Ben Martin (CFA’12).
Mann has cultivated a reputation as a provocative and fiercely political playwright. Execution of Justice marked her Broadway debut as both a writer and a director. As artistic director of the McCarter Theatre in Princeton, N.J., for the past 22 years, Mann was honored with a 1994 Tony Award for outstanding regional theater. The following year, she wrote and directed Having Our Say, which was nominated for three Tony awards, an Outer Critics Circle award, and a Drama Desk award. She also wrote and directed Meshugah, adapted from a story by Isaac Bashevis Singer, and Greensboro (A Requiem). She picked up an Obie Award for her direction of the New York run of the Edward Albee (Hon.’10) play All Over, with Rosemary Harris.
“I believe that to tell this story again and again—a story that is new to some, familiar to others—opens our tender wounds,” says Vaan Hogue, “but also gives us the opportunity to heal as a community.”
Execution of Justice runs tonight through February 24, with curtain times Friday, February 17 and 24, and Saturday, February 18, at 8 p.m., Sunday, February 19, at 2 p.m. (with talk-back), and Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday, February 21, 22, and 23, at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $12 for the general public, $10 for BU alumni, WGBH members, Huntington Theatre Company subscribers, students, senior citizens, and groups of 10 or more. Members of the BU community can get one free ticket with BU ID at the door, the day of the performance, subject to availability. The Calderwood Pavilion is at the Boston Center for the Arts, 527 Tremont St., Boston. By public transportation, take the MBTA Green Line to the Copley Square stop or the Orange Line to Back Bay. Purchase tickets here, call 617-933-8600, or visit the Calderwood Pavilion box office.1 Comments