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Staged readings of 8 humanize marriage debate



Spencer and Elliot are a couple of above-average high school kids, preoccupied with soccer practice, competitive fencing and a couple of upcoming tests. And they're freaking out a little bit, just now, because their parents, Kris Perry and Sandy Stier, are about to testify in federal court. A little more than a year ago, the state of California told the couple that they weren't married anymore, after Proposition 8, an amendment to the state constitution eliminating the right for same-sex couples to wed, was passed.

"I mean, we thought our parents were married," says Elliot. "When we think of marriage ... we think of our parents."

Then he reflects for a moment. "But I know for a fact that there's a lot of kids in our school who don't want to see them get married."

When asked what he expects in the trial, Spencer replies, "I don't know. I've never been in a courtroom where my parents were testifying against their own government."

It's the opening scene from the controversial documentary stage drama 8, and already playwright Dustin Lance Black has zoomed in on the people behind the issues. According to producer Tim Scales, that's part of the genius of a stage and screen writer whose recent work has included scripts for the feature films J. Edgar and Milk: "He really shows the human effects of these legal decisions—that they aren't made in a vacuum, but affect real, human lives."

Black's attention turned to the California federal hearings that overturned Proposition 8 after marriage equality opponents convinced the U.S. Supreme Court to ban the television coverage District Judge Vaughn Walker had already approved for the trial. They subsequently sued to keep the court's own videos of the proceedings sealed from public view.

Black's response was a play based on court transcripts and interviews, dramatizing the closing arguments in the case while highlighting the most significant testimony during the trial. The work has become a theatrical cause celebre. A star-studded September staged reading in New York to benefit the legal team fighting the amendment included John Lithgow, Morgan Freeman and Ellen Barkin; the Los Angeles staged reading last month was helmed by Brad Pitt, George Clooney and Martin Sheen.

In their aftermath, Black is licensing staged readings of the play without charge to community and college theaters across the country through 2012 to maximize distribution and publicity of the sequestered events. In response, PlayMakers Repertory Company and UNC-Chapel Hill's Department of Dramatic Art are presenting a joint production on Monday in Paul Green Theatre at the Center for Dramatic Art. On April 21, Raleigh Ensemble Players presents their staged reading at Cary Academy.

Both productions are free to the public (though reservations are required), and both feature casts drawn from distinguished guest and local artists as well as leaders from the community. In Chapel Hill, Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt will join Tony-nominated New York actors Gavin Creel (Hair) and José Llana (25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee), along with PlayMakers stalwarts David Adamson and Kathryn Hunter-Williams.

In the Cary production, Dr. Anne McLaurin of the Wake County school board appears with a veritable who's who from the region's independent theater, including the artistic directors of Burning Coal Theatre, Little Green Pig Theatrical Concern, Raleigh Little Theatre, Stillwater Theatre and Theatre in the Park.

The shows are among 130-plus productions scheduled so far this year. Five others will take place across North Carolina in April, in Asheville, Hendersonville, Charlotte, Winston-Salem and Morehead City. (For more information on other productions, check the show's website,

For Jesse Gephart, the chance to direct the Cary production was a leap of faith: When the rights became available last fall, he applied for the show, sight unseen. "I'd followed the original Broadway casting and reading on various websites," he chuckles, "and I had enough faith in Dustin as a playwright that I couldn't imagine it would be bad." A subsequent reading of the script more than validated Gephart's gut check.

"What draws me to this play draws me to theater in general," notes Scales, who is co-producing the Chapel Hill reading with Haymaker co-founder Dan VanHoozer. "It's the opportunity to put an issue in front of an audience, to humanize it, to show how it affects the world and how it affects them in the audience, and then let them continue the conversation. We're not producing this reading to advocate for a specific viewpoint, but to contribute to the current statewide conversation about marriage."

Scales adds that "this case was ultimately an argument for and against same-sex marriage. Both sides were heard equally, and a decision was made." Staging the trial transcripts "really helps open up those arguments; it allows people to think through the issues on their own and come to their own conclusions."

This article appeared in print with the headline "From this day forward..."


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