‘8’Written by Michael Miller | Editor in Chief Emeritus | firstname.lastname@example.org
Jennifer Rockwood is a force of nature. The director and actress, who serves as assistant dean for the University of Toledo’s College of Innovative Learning and director of the First Year Experience Program, possesses a personality designed to mobilize other people into action. As a 20-plus-year veteran of theater on and off campus, she has guided hundreds of people through the always compelling and often introspective journey that leads actors to the stage.
I have known Rockwood since the early 1990s, when I was a student journalist and she was directing plays at UT. She is as much a part of my definition of “Toledo” as a Mud Hens game, the High Level Bridge and a signed hot dog bun at Tony Packo’s. Her husband, John, is one of the naturally coolest men on the planet, a musician with Voodoo Libido who also takes insightful and often breathtaking photos of other musicians.
In July, when Rockwood asked if I would take part in a staged reading of the marriage equality play “8,” I jumped at the chance to work with her and be part of an important social and political statement.
“8,” written by Oscar-winning screenwriter Dustin Lance Black, appealed to me because it is very much a work of journalism. Black took the court transcripts of Perry v. Schwarzenegger (now Perry v. Brown), a federal district court case filed to overturn California’s Proposition 8, which banned gay and lesbian couples’ right to marry in that state. By presenting actual transcripts of testimony (from a trial that had been closed to television broadcast), Black was revealing the testimony and facts behind the arguments.
I have long maintained that gay marriage in the United States is as inevitable as interracial marriage and other once-contested civil rights. There is no cogent, empirical argument that allowing gay people to marry has any detrimental effect on heterosexual marriage, that stalwart institution that barely 50 percent of Americans can successfully navigate. You don’t have to like it, but understand that your distaste is irrelevant to the legal and social standards that should guarantee this right for all Americans.
The cast of “8” met for one table reading and two stage run-throughs before the Oct. 7 performance. My role, marriage equality advocate Evan Wolfson, was a brief but loud moment of conflict on a talking heads news show, arguing with marriage equality opponent Maggie Gallagher, played by Merlaine Angwall. The brief appearance called for us to step on each other’s lines in protest and escalate our rhetoric to a flash of righteous anger.
“Loud and indignant? I can do that,” I told Rockwood.
It was a tremendous learning experience, watching the actors and nonactors gel and slip into character. I was particularly struck by the efforts of Ben Pryor as Proposition 8 proponents’ attorney Charles J. Cooper and John Meadows as proponents’ witness David Blankenhorn. Both men took difficult strings of often stuttering, insupportable dialogue and brought them to life with wit and empathy.
“8” also features real commercials that were run to convince California voters to overturn gay marriage rights. The commercials are stunning examples of lying propaganda, focusing on how marriage equality would supposedly destroy families, children and education as we know them.
As plaintiffs’ attorney Theodore B. Olson (played by John Adams) argued, “The overwhelming evidence proves that allowing persons to marry someone of the same-sex will not, in the slightest, deter heterosexuals from marrying or from having babies.”
Some of the most striking moments in “8” focus on the frustration gay couples feel in not being able to participate in marriage and how that exclusion keeps them from expressing the basics of their relationships and humanity.
As spoken by plaintiffs Jeff Zarrillo (Rob Salem) and Paul Katami (Larry Dean Harris), “A civil union? A domestic partnership would relegate me to a level of second-class citizenship, maybe even third-class citizenship. It doesn’t give due respect to the relationship that we have had for almost nine years. Only a marriage could do that. … ‘Husband’ is definitive. It’s something that everyone understands. There is no subtlety to it. It is absolute, and comes with an understanding that your relationship is not temporal, it’s not new, it’s not something that could fade easily.”
Illuminating testimony about gay marriage was provided by Gary Segura (played by Carter Wilson): “For starters, and I would include in this undocumented aliens who are a distant second, there is no group who has been targeted by ballot initiatives more than gays and lesbians. The number of ballot initiative contests since the late 1970s is probably at or above 200. Gays and lesbians lose 70 percent of the contests and 100 percent of the contests over same-sex marriage and adoption.”
In his closing argument, Olson said, “The Supreme Court has said that marriage is the most important relation in life. It is the foundation of society. It is essential to the orderly pursuit of happiness. It’s a right of privacy older than the Bill of Rights and older than our political parties. A right of intimacy to the degree of being sacred.”
Denying anyone that right is un-American. And as Blankenhorn testifies (to the chagrin of Proposition 8 believers), “we would be more — emphasize more — American on the day we permitted same-sex marriage than we were on the day before.”
More than 500 people attended Rockwood’s one-time only reading of “8.” My guess is the vast majority of them already support marriage equality. It is up to them, and forces of nature like Rockwood, to keep educating and working to share the message that “8” dramatizes so effectively.
Michael S. Miller is editor in chief of Toledo Free Press and Toledo Free Press Star. Contact him at email@example.com.
Tags: 8, Ben Pryor, Carter Wilson, Charles J. Cooper, David Blankenhorn, Dustin Lance Black, Evan Wolfson, Gary Segura, gay marriage, Jeff Zarrillo, Jennifer Rockwood, John Adams, John Meadows, John Rockwood, Larry Dean Harris, Lighting The Fuse, Maggie Gallagher, marriage equality, Merlaine Angwall, Michael S. Miller, Paul Katami, Rob Salem, Theodore B. Olson