Execution of Justice

Michael Nagrant / 01.22.07

Harvey Milk was one of those historical names always in the back of my consciousness, but one without an associate meaning. Truth be told, and no disrespect intended, the name probably buzzed in my brain because it sounded like a clever moniker for a dairy cow.

It turns out that Harvey Milk was the first openly gay city supervisor of San Francisco and a legendary gay rights activist. His nemesis, Dan White was a former San Francisco firefighter, policeman, politician and the poster child for all-American family values. A fellow San Francisco supervisor, White often wrangled with Milk over gay rights issues before the city board. Threatened with losing his supervisory seat, White gunned down Milk, and San Francisco Mayor George Moscone, at city hall on November 28, 1978.

In 1986, playwright Emily Mann, wrote Execution of Justice, a documentary play based on the transcripts of Dan White’s trial. Though political in nature, Mann’s script manages to illustrate almost every facet of the trial, including the community sentiment, the political aftermath, and the views of both Milk and White supporters, with a deft even-handedness. After its initial Broadway run, the piece hadn’t been performed for over 20 years until it’s revival by the About Face Theatre Company this February.

The About Face production directed by Gary Griffin (The Color Purple) brings Mann’s script to vivid life. Griffin wrings masterful performances from the cast, including one of the best performances by a supporting ensemble (many of the supporting actors play multiple parts) I’ve seen in the last year. Highlights include Keith Kupferer, who plays both an old school wiseguy cop and an erudite psychologist, with equal aplomb, and Larry Neumann Jr. who delivers a magnificent monologue as District Attorney Joseph Freitas.

The ensemble is so good that it overshadows the performances of the main actors, except for Steve Key’s portrayal of Dan White. Key, as White spends a lot of time in silence in the center of the stage reacting only with facial expressions to the other actors who play out his trial. Unlike the real life trial of OJ Simpson, where half the time OJ had a wry “what me” look or a bored sleepy expression, Key works a nice variety of conflicted, worried, and concerned looks throughout the production.

I love theatre, but I’m a child of the late 70’s and early 80’s, weaned on blockbuster movies and I occasionally get impatient with the subtlety of stage drama. This production negates that impatience by employing a multimedia set design that includes a central MTV like bank of TV’s that broadcast interesting snippets of newsclips, photos, and recordings from the White-trial era.

One of the more powerful multi-media snippets is a taped broadcast of Milk’s political will. When he was elected, Milk, as a gay activist in unsympathetic times, feared he might be assassinated, and he had the foresight to record a message of hope which included the quote “If a bullet should enter my brain, let that bullet destroy every closet door.”

Almost twenty years later, there are still a lot of closet doors, and modern actors like Isaiah Washington of Grey’s Anatomy are still slinging anti-gay slurs. Execution of Justice still serves as a poignant example of the courage of activists like Milk, and powerful reminder to the generation born after the assassinations that despite our advances we still have miles to go.

This article first appeared on centerstagechicago.com

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