This is an archived article.

April 28, 2005

Was justice served or sacrificed? Play explores famous San Francisco murders

When Dan White was tried for the 1978 murders of San Francisco Mayor George Moscone and member of the Board of Supervisors Harvey Milk, was it an execution of justice as in carrying out justice, or was it an execution of justice as in killing justice?


The double meaning is entirely deliberate in the title of the School of Drama’s latest production, Execution of Justice, which opened last night in Meany Studio Theater and will run through May 8.


Written in 1984 by Emily Mann, the play is a docudrama. All of the lines come from interviews or court transcripts, and a cast of 18 — drawn from the Professional Actor Training Program and from the ranks of undergraduates — collectively play 43 real-life characters.


They are characters the students were initially unfamiliar with. Director Valerie Curtis-Newton said most of the cast didn’t know about the events the play depicts, which happened before they were born. The facts are these: Harvey Milk and Dan White served on the Board of Supervisors — San Francisco’s version of City Council — together, and were on opposite sides of most issues. White was the only member of the board to vote against the Gay Rights Ordinance designed to protect gays and lesbians from employment discrimination. Subsequently, White resigned his office under the combined pressures of his business failing and criticism that he was ineffectual on the board.


White then changed his mind, but his letter had already been filed and Mayor Moscone decided to replace him with a political ally. Enraged, White went to City Hall and asked to see Moscone. Upon being admitted, he shot and killed the mayor. He then went to Milk’s office, shot him and walked out of the building unchallenged. White was convicted of voluntary manslaughter rather than murder after claiming his judgment was impaired by the amount of junk food he had eaten — a verdict that caused riots. He served five years of a seven-year sentence and committed suicide after his release.


Milk was the first openly gay elected official in the country, giving many people the idea that Execution of Justice is “the gay play” and centers on Milk. But Curtis-Newton thinks otherwise.


“It’s really a play about justice,” she said. “It’s about civility and discourse and fairness. It’s about how our fears and our inability to communicate across our differences tears at institutions that are fundamental to our society. So there’s been a big challenge in making the play. We couldn’t just dismiss Dan White as a crazy fanatical demon; he’s a human being who was created by his circumstances.”


In fact, Curtis-Newton said, at their first rehearsal she told the cast, “We’re telling the story not of one man, but of three men and a city.”


The play does not depict the murders, but rather the subsequent trial and its aftermath. In addition to its focus on justice, Curtis-Newton thinks the play encourages a serious look at the media and its influence. One of the characters is a TV news reporter who is accompanied by a cameraman, so the audience will simultaneously see the live action and a video version on televisions mounted in the theater.


“I think that’s important to do because our view of justice is Court TV and other outlets like it,” Curtis-Newton said. “I felt like having the live broadcast gets back to the notion that what we see and what is real may not be the same thing.”


Execution of Justice had just a short run on Broadway in the mid-80s but has continued to be produced regularly, often by colleges and universities. Curtis-Newton had hoped to do the play two years ago, which was the 25th anniversary of the murders. That didn’t happen, but she kept the play on the Drama School’s radar screen.


Now she thinks that with the current political skirmishes over gay marriage and “activist judges,” the timing is very good for a new production.


“It’s interesting to me that in the wake of the Terri Schiavo case, members of Congress are talking about impeaching judges who don’t agree with them,” Curtis-Newton said. “That’s a wonderful example of how we’re not able to solve an issue through discourse so let’s ‘kill’ the judges. We need to ask ourselves, ‘Am I willing to hear the point of view of someone who disagrees with me on a subject about which I feel strongly?’ And if I’m not willing to hear it, what does that mean for the society I live in?”


Curtis-Newton thinks that’s the crux of the playwright’s argument in Execution of Justice. “I think she has a concern that not having a response to violence that is fair and equitable and as removed from passion as it can be opens the door for more violence,” the director said. “We have to be mindful or we will in fact execute justice.”


And, she added, she wants the production to provoke questions and discussion among the audience. In fact, the Drama School plans two post-play discussions facilitated by graduate student Jennifer Lavy. They will be on Friday, April 29 and Wednesday, May 4.


Tickets for Execution of Justice are available at the Arts Ticket Office, 206-543-4880.