Telling the Truth

When 52% of California voters chose in 2008 to remove the rights of same-sex couples to marry, rights which had been granted the previous June in a decision by the California Supreme Court, they were passing judgment on the lives of others.  Their vote for Proposition 8 stated, in effect, that gay men and lesbians do not deserve to experience the kind of stable happiness that a legally-binding, socially-recognized marriage may provide.

Judgments are also passed in court.  Before a judge, we are exhorted to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.  The point of this truth-telling is to arrive at a state of justice—a judgment based on the truth.

8, a play by Dustin Lance Black which the Western Stage is presenting in a staged reading on Friday, July 20, is another exercise in truth-telling.  It recreates, in dramatic fashion, the trial that sought to overturn the passage of Prop. 8 on the grounds that the proposition was discriminatory and unconstitutional.  8 gives voice to what one might call the community of the trial: its plaintiffs and their families, its defendants, lawyers, judges, and media.  Yet by transforming this landmark trial into a theatrical event which is currently being staged in theaters and college campuses around the country, Black has contributed a crucial element to this community, one that was missing from the original trial—an audience.

The defendents of Proposition 8 “fought hard to make sure this trial was never seen,” Black (photo at right) told me in an email interview.  “They argued all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court to have cameras banned from the court.  So this historic trial was hidden from view.  Truth was hidden from public view.”  Black recognized that a play could be written, cast and produced more speedily than a film; by using the transcripts of the trial, he was able to create a work of art that speaks in real time to a timely subject—one whose arguments the Justices of the U.S. Supreme Court will, in all likelihood, soon be hearing.

8 was premiered in New York, in September, 2011, and received a second production the following March in Hollywood, directed by Rob Reiner and featuring an all-star cast, including Brad Pitt, George Clooney, Martin Sheen, Jane Lynch, Kevin Bacon and Jamie Lee Curtis.  For the production in Salinas, TWS Artistic Director Jon Selover has gathered a large cast of Western Stage alumnae, many of whom have not seen each other in years.

“It’s one of the most exciting things we’ve had come our way,” Selover says.  He describes 8 as “living theater,” a kind of art that responds to what is happening in society: its pressures, hopes, desires, needs.  Even those who are already committed to marriage equality, for instance, need art of this kind.  “It’s not preaching to the choir,” he says, “because the choir doesn’t know all the notes of the song.  A play like 8 helps.  It gets at what is really involved and what is not involved.  It is balanced, showing all the arguments as they were presented.  We can see and understand who is saying what, and then apply it to our own life experiences.”

For Black, the arts play a key role in the effort to achieve marriage equality.  Through storytelling, “the arts are a way for the minority, the outsider, the misunderstood to share his or her experience in a way that can be understood universally,” he says.  “Through the arts we find common ground, we find our common humanity and we dispel the myths and lies and stereotypes about LGBT people that have plagued us for so many generations now.  It is through the increased understanding created by our work in the arts that we change hearts and minds.”

Art has always been about transformation, whether of materials, attitudes, experiences, even transformation of the self.  This is one reason why providing access to the arts can be especially important for young people on the margins of social acceptance.  Black was a painfully shy boy who came to the theater “kicking and screaming,” he says.  It was also where he found his community, as well as the skills and tools that have served him well in his career as an Oscar-winning writer in Hollywood.  Black himself is a Western Stage alum, having appeared in a 1990 production of Peter Pan that was directed by Selover, and he will return to Salinas for this production of 8 and will participate in a post-show audience Q & A.

The Western Stage presents a staged reading of 8, by Dustin Lance Black, Friday, July 20, at 7:30 p.m.  Tickets are free, but this performance is fully booked.  For last-minute stand-by tickets, contact the Western Stage at 831-755-6816.