At 8PM on Friday, September 21st, Public Theatre of Long Beach presents their first production—a one night staged reading of "8" The Play, which uses actual transcripts from the civil trial that challenged the legality of Proposition 8, the so-called Marriage Protection Act, which eliminated the rights of same sex couples to marry in California.
The play, presented in the beautiful and historic 800-seat Ernest Borgnine Theatre, features a star studded cast, including the legendary and award winning Ben Vereen, whose theatrical credits include starring roles in Pippin and Jesus Christ Superstar and, more recently, Chicago, Fosse, and Wicked. His film credits include Sweet Charity, Funny Lady, and All That Jazz. He also received an Emmy nomination for his performance as Chicken George in Alex Haley's Roots, and has had featured roles on The Muppet Show, Webster, Silk Stalkings, Star Trek: The Next Generation, Grey's Anatomy, and How I Met Your Mother.
Also starring is David Birney, whose long and varied stage career has included starring roles in many a Shakespeare play. Baby boomers may remember him best from his popular TV show Bridget Loves Bernie. Lyle Kanouse, Alan Mandell and Jonelle Allen also have key roles.
The big surprise, though, is that local booster, photography enthusiast, pet fanatic, health advocate and man-about-town Justin Rudd is teaming up with Vice Mayor and First District Councilman Robert Garcia to portray two of the four plaintiffs.
Michael Butler's Tribe Entertainment Group is co-producing the show. Butler is best known for Hair, West Side Story, and Lenny.
Denis McCourt is the man who has made all this happen. Many know him for his celebrated productions of innovative theatrical work made on a shoe-string budget in a back room of Bixby Knolls' EXPO Art Center. Lately, though, he has been focused on creating two new organizations: Public Theatre of Southern California and Public Theatre of Long Beach.
If you didn't know McCourt, you might think that his vision of using theater to connect diverse communities, give voice to underrepresented groups and provide training for theater professionals and audiences might be overly ambitious, but it isn't. He's been laying the groundwork for all this and more. Still, even the best laid plans sometimes get diverted. For example, McCourt had intended for the first official production by PTSC to launch next year, but fate had other ideas.
"As a director, it has always been my belief that, when you do important plays, there is almost 'a calling' that happens," McCourt says. "A calling for the actors and artistic team, and a calling for the audience that is suppose to bear witness to the story. That has proven true with our production of '8' The Play. Dustin Lance Black, Oscar winning writer of Milk and J Edgar, was really upset when the court did not let the cameras into the courtroom during the lawsuit against the State of California...Dustin jumped on the transcripts from the trial and created '8' The Play."
The play has seen a number of star-studded one night staged readings including a sold out performance in Manhattan and another in March at the Wilshire Ebell featuring George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Martin Sheen, Kevin Bacon, Jamie Lee Curtis, Christine Lahti and George Takei.
"Peter Clifford, a friend and husband to our set designer, John Novak, told me about the play before it ran on Broadway last year," McCourt recalls. "As soon as he brought it to me I contacted Broadway Impact and the American Foundation of Equal Rights [AFER] to get on board. We decided to do it because it speaks so loudly to who and what Public Theatre of Southern California hopes to be. We are committed to the power of personal story, and how those stories can weave the fabric of a community together, and allow for the individual voice to have a place of importance in Long Beach and Southern California. Although this play is about marriage equality, it is also about families and love."
The play focuses on the actual courtroom testimony of plaintiffs Kristin Perry, Sandy Steir and their twin sons Spenser and Elliot. Plaintiffs Jeff Zarillo and Paul Katami also shared their personal stories.
"Black also included a witness from the trial named Ryan Kendall who was forced by his parents to undergo 'conversion therapy' as a youth," MCCourt says. "It is powerful testimony that tells us that, sometimes, the hate against the GLBT community starts right in the home...I am glad to bring a story of a fight against all of that to the stage, and to show the GLBT youth and, frankly, everyone that the line is drawn, and ask, 'On which side do you stand?'"
McCourt knew from the outset that he wanted well known local individuals to participate in the production—and the two who topped the short list were Rudd and Garcia.
"I am honored that they said yes," McCourt says. "As great as they both are at public speaking, I know they will do great in our production. They already posses the the most important thing an actor needs—connection to the material...We are very lucky to have such great men living in our city. And I have to say that they did not hesitate."
McCourt pauses for a moment, overcome with emotion.
"I feel very blessed," he admitted, "and like I am living my purpose."
Tickets are already selling like hotcakes. Regular general admission tickets are $20 and special VIP tickets are $120 and include pre and post-event receptions. All profits will go to AFER.
To purchase tickets, visit PublicTheatreSoCal.com.
The Ernest Borgnine Theatre is located inside the historic Scottish Rite Temple, located at 855 Elm Avenue. There is limited free on-site parking and access to public transportation is just blocks away.
Click here to view our policies covering Robert Garcia and the Long Beach city council.