Few know the intersection of film art and gay-rights activism as intimately as Dustin Lance Black.
He graduated with honors from UCLA's School of Theater, Film and Television and went on to win the 2008 Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay for Gus Van Sant's 2008 film "Milk," about the assassination of San Francisco gay-rights activist and politician Harvey Milk.
He narrated former Utah broadcaster Reed Cowan's 2010 Sundance documentary "8: The Mormon Proposition," which explored the money trail behind the campaign for Proposition 8, the California state constitutional amendment prohibiting same-sex marriage. After a pair of same-sex couples filed suit, U.S. District Judge Vaughn R. Walker overturned the amendment on Aug. 4, 2010.
Most recently, in June, Black appeared as grand marshal for Salt Lake City's Gay Pride Parade, where he witnessed history: It marked the first time churchgoing members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints more than 300, dressed in Sunday going-to-church clothes marched to show support for Utah's gay, lesbian and transgender community.
It was a life-changing moment for Black, who grew up in Texas in a military family that was also Mormon. And it came 3 1/2 years after protesters took to Salt Lake City's streets outside LDS Church headquarters, protesting what they felt was the church's unwarranted intrusion into the political process in asking members to support Proposition 8. Mormons contributed millions to the campaign, but Black said he sees more and more the impact of building bridges between church members and the gay community.
"There's a reason I'm here [in Salt Lake City] almost every other month, aside from the fact that half of my family lives within half an hour of the city," Black said.
The significance of gay events in Utah's capital • Black will return to Utah next weekend to present a reading of his new play, "8." Joining him for a post-performance discussion panel will be Massachusetts Rep. Barney Frank. After Frank's marriage July 7 to partner James Ready, the congressman became the first openly gay, legally married elected representative in U.S. history.
The staged reading, featuring a Who's Who of local Utah actors in a production by Plan-B Theatre Company, falls on the two-year anniversary of Judge Walker's earth-shaking decision.
Hundreds of theater companies nationwide will stage readings in commemoration. Only Salt Lake City has the distinction of drawing both Frank and Black in person. Frank is attending only the Utah reading. Black has chosen two: Plan-B's reading at Salt Lake City's Rose Wagner, followed by a reading at Western Stage theater in Salinas, Calif., where he first apprenticed.
"Salt Lake City is a place where so much important work is being done, and done differently. It's all in the spirit of friends and family unique to the Mormon community. It's one of the things I miss about being active in the LDS Church," he said.
Frank's choice, meanwhile, is pragmatic. A self-proclaimed "student" of legal strategies, especially the NAACP's fights for desegregation, Frank said by phone from his Washington, D.C., office that gay-rights events on both coasts have, in one sense, outlived their purpose.
"It's certainly fun to attend another fundraiser in Manhattan," Frank said. "But I'm a big believer that you make your argument where you most need to persuade people. That's far more important than having a good time."
Meaning between the lines • Black's play has received staged readings on both coasts with star-studded casts. The Broadway reading took place in September; the Los Angeles reading was in March.
Bob Balaban and Brad Pitt played Walker for the Broadway and Los Angeles productions, respectively, with Morgan Freeman and George Clooney as plaintiffs' attorney David Boies. Kevin Bacon, Jamie Lee Curtis and Ellen Barkin also filled out the casts, proving the social conservatives' lament that Hollywood wears its liberal heart on its sleeve.
Plan-B's upcoming reading showcases, among others, Utah actor Jason Tatom as Walker and X96 radio host Bill Allred as Gregory M. Herek, a trial witness. Teresa Sanderson plays a lesbian mother of two, Kris Perry, with April Fossen as Sandy Stier, her partner, one of the couples named in the lawsuit.
Before Black crafted "8," he went deep inside a place he had rarely visited: a federal courtroom, where battles are fought in long, often dry bouts of back-and-forth oral argument and perfunctory court procedures.
Certainly the task of translating the 2010 California federal court case striking down Proposition 8 for stage would be easy for such a seasoned veteran of film and activism?
Not even, Black said. "The biggest challenge I gave myself was that I did not, in any way, want to change the words of the judge, lawyers, plaintiffs and defendants," he said by phone from his Los Angeles home.
Miffed by the fact that defendants fought strenuously to have film and video cameras barred from the chambers where the case was heard, Black vowed to sit through all the sessions he could. In the end, he missed only two days of hearings.
"I asked myself why the opposition was so afraid of being seen when they're so sure they're telling the truth about gay marriage," Black said. "The only reason I could think of was that they knew this wouldn't go well. Transcripts can't characterize the nature of how someone feels. You learn that there's a lot of truth to be found outside of the word."
The play "8" opens with a television ad in favor of the proposition, as a daughter tells her mother how she learned about gay marriage in a public school. Pivoting from that introductory context, Black then follows with dialogue from two boys, Spencer and Elliott, sons of lesbian couple Perry and Stier. The script then works to show how defendants of the proposition failed to demonstrate why the state should regulate same-sex marriage for the protection of children and society.
"When slaves were emancipated, they flocked to get married," says Nancy Cott, a witness for the plaintiff, played in Plan-B's production by Utah-based actor Daisy Blake. "It was said by an ex-slave who had also been a Union soldier, 'The marriage covenant is the foundation of all our rights.' "
When the personal is political • For Jerry Rapier, Plan-B Theatre Company's producing director, the play and panel featuring Black and Frank is an event that's both personal and professional.
Rapier first read Black's play when on honeymoon with his husband, local actor Kirt Bateman, months after they became Utah's first same-sex couple married in New York (significantly, on Utah's Pioneer Day holiday, July 24, 2011). Bateman will play Charles Cooper, an attorney for the defense, in "8."
Staging the play was the result of "a lot of serendipity aligning," Rapier said. "I've never even met Frank. I've been texting back and forth with Black for six months. That it all came together shows that this cause is bigger than any one person and makes instant family of those connected to it."
"8" might seem like an incredibly one-sided play, until you realize that it's literally putting onstage what was in the courtroom, Rapier said. It's also unusual in that the play generates conflict from its context and proceedings, functioning as a dramatized battle on the merits of legal arguments.
"It's a political tool and call to action," Rapier said. "It's literally a frozen moment in time that gives us a sense of how true communication can happen when people are forced to listen to each other."
One result of Black's play, he notes, is that the court's own video record of the proceedings, denied the media in 2010, is only now surfacing for a curious public.
Frank's footnote, Black to the future • The event is something of a grace-note for the political career of Frank, who's ending his 16th term as a U.S. representative after choosing not to run in the 2012 election. Ready, his husband and a photographer, has prepared an exhibit of photos in the Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center's lobby for the Aug. 4 and 5 readings of "8."
After almost 32 years in office, Frank said he tires of the "gotcha" questions that have surrounded his sexuality since he came out of the closet in 1987.
"When you come out in the public square, you accept a certain intrusion of your privacy," he said. "Straight political couples have a little of that problem, especially when scandal erupts, but not as much."
Black said he's eager to meet a pioneer of Frank's rank again. The two met briefly during a 2007 Human Rights Campaign event in Portland, when he was working on the script for "Milk" in Gus Van Sant's hometown.
"I'm nowhere near even being engaged," Black said. "He's married!"
Dustin Lance Black's '8'
Plan-B Theatre Company offers a staged reading of Dustin Lance Black's "8," continuing its Script-in-Hand series with this special event featuring the Oscar-winning Hollywood screenwriter as well as special guest Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass.
When • Saturday, Aug. 4, 8 p.m., and Sunday, Aug. 5, 2 p.m.
Where • Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center's Jeanne Wagner Theatre, 138 W. 300 South, Salt Lake City
Info • $25. Call 801-355-ARTS or visit http://www.planbtheatre.org for more information.