When San Francisco Mayor George Moscone and city supervisor Harvey Milk were shot in November 1978, the city held a candlelight parade in remembrance. When their killer (fellow supervisor) Dan White was convicted for his crimes, it erupted into riots. The catalyst for this violence was that White pleaded diminished responsibility (a claim that was distorted by the media into the now infamous ‘Twinkie defence’) and, rather than face the death penalty for murder, was sentenced for the lesser offence of voluntary manslaughter – a plea that many felt was facilitated by a system whose institutional homophobia coloured the perception of his crime.
Emily Mann’s 1982 play takes court transcripts, interviews and reportage and deftly interweaves them, both recreating the trial and illustrating the effect it had on the San Francisco – particularly on a devastated gay community who, so soon after finding its political voice, had it brutally stripped away. It lays bare the rampant bigotry in the police force, which at the time was dominated by blue collar Catholics, many of whom were disgusted by the changing demographic of their city, and whose kid glove treatment of White illustrated that they saw him less as a murderer fuelled by petty rivalries and personal frustrations, but more as a decent man driven to despair by a world which had lost its moral compass.
As has been proven by the recent spate of successful verbatim plays, the words of actual people can be more effective than anything crafted by a writer, and here they combine to often devastating effect. In a tightly choreographed 100 minutes, Joss Bennathan directs a large and talented cast who mostly take on multiple roles, from citizens shocked by the news of the murders to City Hall officials called to give testimony, to the string of experts brought in to verify White’s ludicrous defence. It’s hard to single out a few from so many, but Christopher Lane’s defence lawyer is suitably sly, while Ben Mars’ prosecuting attorney is effective as a man whose disbelief becomes more evident as his case unravels. As White himself, Philip Duguid-Mcquillan is an appropriately blank faced cipher, a man whose claimed anguish is never quite believable and who sits calmly at the centre of the storm.
James Turners’ sparse set – dominated by the judge’s bench and the witness box, the floor plastered with the newspapers of the day – aptly conjures up the claustrophobia of a court while allowing the stage to open up into the city, but it is this narrowness of focus that is also the production’s main flaw. San Francisco in 1978 was a city in upheaval, its social and political structures in flux and its citizens reeling from the tragedy of the Jonestown mass suicides: the most compelling parts of the play are when it touches on this wider canvas – Doron Davidson’s poignant performance as an idealist whose hopes were dashed, Catherine Hammond compelling in her anger as a citizen betrayed by her city, Aidan Dowling’s bitter drag queen a Greek Chorus of doom. To focus so narrowly on events that are ultimately unedifying – I can’t imagine anyone going to see the play without already knowing much of the story, or having preconceived convictions regarding White’s guilt – feels at times almost perverse.
Still, staged in a city recovering from its own riots, and where the reopening of the Stephen Lawrence trials has graphically illustrated the terrible cost of institutionalized bigotry, and at a time when America’s right wing is battling to take its country back to the dark ages, this is a play that remains tragically relevant.