Arts Desk

Prop 8 On Trial: Woolly Mammoth Reads Dustin Lance Black’s 8

A part of Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company's mission has always been to use its medium as a vehicle for timely civic discourse. With tonight's sold-out staged reading of Dustin Lance Black's documentary play 8, the troupe's timing couldn't be more spot-on.

In part this is by design—the reading was scheduled to coincide with the Capital Pride Festival8 chronicles the Federal District Court case Perry v. Schwarzenegger (now Perry v. Brown). It was filed by the American Foundation for Equal Rights to overturn Proposition 8, legislation that eliminated the right for same-sex couples to marry in California. Black, the screenwriter of the films Milk and J. Edgar has combined court transcripts with imagined scenes from the lives of the plaintiffs, their families, and another couple affected by the case. It's "simply a happy coincidence," writes Woolly Mammoth Literary Manager John M. Baker in an e-mail, that the reading takes place so soon after Vice President Joe Biden and President Barack Obama’s recent statements in support of same-sex marriage.

As it happens, the event also follows Tuesday's announcement that opponents of same-sex marriage in Maryland have gathered more than twice the required signatures to force a referendum in November. (In February, the state passed legislation allowing same-sex couples to marry.)

Shakespeare Theatre Company's Alan Paul, the director of the reading, describes the 8 as "an explanation of this very complicated issue which has a polarizing effect on almost anyone who comes in contact with it. Most people don't have a passive opinion about Proposition 8 and gay marriage. They're either very passionately for it, or very passionately against it." The script presents the case as it was argued in federal court.  The lawyers on both sides of the argument, the presiding judge, and many real-life witnesses are characters in the play.

During 2012, AFER and Broadway Impact are licensing the rights to 8 for free to theaters nationwide. Baker says that Woolly Mammoth was contacted in February about mounting a reading in D.C. because members of the Broadway Impact staff had seen last year's production of Robert O’Hara’s Bootycandy and corresponding outreach efforts.

Though Monday evening's reading is sold out, the discussion afterward will be live-streamed. Panelists include Maryland State Senator Richard S. Madaleno Jr., National Gay and Lesbian Task Force Executive Director Rea Carey, Human Rights Campaign Legal Director Brian Moulton, and Matt Nosanchuk from the U.S. Department of Justice's Civil Rights Division. Woolly will also host a number of organizations from the Washington area at an LGBTQ activism fair, T8KE ACTION, in the lobby of the theater from 6 to 10 p.m. The fair is free.

Baker hopes the impact of 8 can also be extended to an audience of Justice Department employees, through collaboration with DOJ Pride. An excerpt of the play will be performed on June 6 as part of the DOJ-sponsored LBGT Pride Month Program.

When it comes to sparking debate and influencing opinions, "the power of theater works in a interesting way," says Paul. "It's very easy to hate somebody or have negative feelings about a situation that you might not be familiar with or that you have a general idea about. What theatre does is it introduces you to a specific set of people and a specific circumstance...It's very difficult, once you get to know the specifics of somebody's life—their hopes, their dreams, their passions—to think about them in a general way anymore. And I think that's also true about a lot of people's feelings, especially if they're against gay marriage. They might be against the idea. But the more they...get to be familiar with gay people or couples, it's very difficult to have a negative feeling about it if it's in your life."

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