For a tribute to Harvey Milk, Patricia Loughrey interviewed "the people
he knew and the lives he changed." At Diversionary Theatre, a cast of
seven reads/performs letters, interviews, and testimonials while Thomas Hodges
plays original music on piano and slides project on a scrim. What comes through
is a courageous man, savvy in politics, with a remarkable gift for seeing
the potential in people - like Anne Kronenberg, whom he made his campaign
manager when she was an inexperienced 22.
The movie Milk has been criticized for hagiography (as if he were the first
gay person to run for office and the first to shout "come out!").
Loughrey's script verges at times on gilding but succeeds in painting a balanced
portrait (as when Ammiano says, "He was a mensch in many ways - and a
diva"). What also comes through are touches missing from the movie (for
me, at least, Sean Penn stood between Milk and the audience, his performance
calling as much attention to himself as to Milk). Dear Harvey offers
more personal observations and recollections - the off-camera Harvey Milk,
in other words, who, the 55-minute Diversionary piece shows, was quite a human
… Got Milk? This may just be Harvey’s year. On the heels of the
Oscar-winning film, “Milk,” in the 30th year after his assassination,
there’s a state bill, SB 572, being sent to the Governor, to make May
22, Harvey’s birthday, Harvey Milk Day in California. At the same time,
Diversionary Theatre commissioned its own tribute to the civil rights activist.
“Dear Harvey,” a world premiere conceived long before
the film was released, honors the impassioned, inspirational visionary, the
first openly gay elected official in California, who championed all human
rights. On November 27, 1978, ten months after he was elected to the San Francisco
Board of Supervisors, Milk, 48, and Mayor George Moscone, 49, were gunned
down by conservative city supervisor Dan White. White got off lightly on the
“Twinkie Defense,” served five years in prison and killed himself
shortly after his release.
“Dear Harvey” was based on local playwright Patricia
Loughrey’s interviews with those who knew Milk, from politicos and activists
to local politicians Toni Atkins and Christine Kehoe. Interspersed with the
touching letters, testimonials and remembrances are historical/archival materials,
including Harvey’s own speeches and photos by San Francisco LGBT photographer
Daniel Nicoletta, whose character featured prominently in the film. San Diego
playwright /actor/musician/composer Thomas Hodges created music for the production,
which he played live on a piano at each performance. Nimbly directed by Diversionary’s
executive/artistic director, Dan Kirsch, the first-rate cast - John Garcia,
Tony Houck, Aaron Marcotte, Jerusha Matsen Neal, Carla Nell, Kim Strassburger
and Scott Striegel - persuasively represented a range of people and voices.
It all added up to an inspiring, edifying, enlightening and sometimes amusing
evening, one that really should have a future, which has already begun.
Pat Launer: Spotlight on Theater, www.sdnn.com
...In the 30 years since his death, Milk has become an icon for
gay rights. Now adding to the iconography of Milk as human
rights activist is a world premiere play commissioned by Diver-
sionary Theatre. Part tribute and part documentary, “Dear Harvey”
is based on interviews with politicians, fellow activists, friends
and nephew Stuart Milk. Playwright Patricia Loughrey also
includes Milk’s own words from speeches, official statements,
personal letters and a column he wrote for the Bay Area Reporter.
Through these various sources emerges a touching, life-affirming and at
times humorous portrait of the activist who affected so many and changed
the course of politics. Milk fought not only for gays and lesbians, but
for minorities, the elderly, unions, public transit, health care, and even
dope smokers and prostitutes. He believed in individual freedoms, the power
of community and the importance of gays to come out of the closet, to be
seen and heard.
Loughrey incorporates many local voices – including politicians Toni
Atkins and Christine Kehoe, and activists from local chapters of Old Lesbians
Organizing for Change and the National Organization for Women – that
provide a sense of what the movement was like in San Diego. In one particularly
funny story, a woman recounts how local NOW members dressed conservatively
and set up tables at local supermarkets with signs that read, “Meet
your local lesbian,” in a bid to demonstrate that gays and lesbians
were neither intimidating nor freakish.
There are coming out stories. Memories of meeting Milk for the first time.
Cleve Jones’ recollections of starting the AIDS Memorial Quilt project.
Thoughts on the riots that followed the sentencing of Dan White –
who received just seven years for the murders of Milk and Mayor George Moscone.
No single member of the ensemble plays Milk; instead, each plays a number
of different “characters,” giving them distinct voices and mannerisms.
Director Dan Kirsch does a fine job of layering the voices, sometimes in
lyrical fashion, other times evoking an angry mob or a throng of fans. One
of the most touching moments in the play comes when we are introduced to
composer Thomas Hodges, who provides the lovely and perfectly fitting piano
music that underscores the play. A 20-year-old student at San Diego State
University, Hodges comes out from behind the piano to take the stage, reading
his own “Dear Harvey” letter of gratitude and inspiration.
The play is not only the story of Milk, but of his legacy, and the changes
that have happened since his assassination that acknowledge his death wasn’t
in vain. It’s an important piece of history, an inspirational story
and engaging theater.
Jennifer Chung Klam , San Diego Arts
Milk, Patricia Loughrey and Dan Kirsch
Diego Councilman, Todd Gloria, Patricia Loughrey and California Representative