Arts & Life, Fine & Performing Arts

LGBTQ activist Harvey Milk remembered in Cal Rep’s production of ‘Dear Harvey’

The life and long lasting impact of Harvey Milk, LGBTQ activist and first openly gay politician elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, was brought to life Friday at the California Repertory’s opening performance of “Dear Harvey.”

Written by Long Beach State professor Patricia Loughrey and directed by Cal Rep artistic director Jeff Janisheski, the 85-minute production is a moving tribute to Milk’s influential life and activism told through a patchwork of voices who knew Milk.

“Dear Harvey” is a form of documented theater called verbatim theater, in which the use of primary source materials such as interviews and letters are stitched together to construct a play, according to Loughrey.

“It was just a lot of gathering [information] and listening to people and trying to hear the impact Harvey had had on them, because it was so significant,” Loughrey said. “Every single person that had met him was profoundly changed by him and I think that is a signal of how special and extraordinary he was.”

An ensemble cast composed of 11 performers shifted in and out of several identities, embodying Milk and individuals who knew and worked with him, delivering powerful anecdotes that showcased Milk’s profound impact.

Fourth-year theater arts performance major, Nicole Royster performed as a member of the ensemble and delivered words spoken by Milk throughout the play.

“Whenever I was saying anything that Harvey said, it felt like it wasn’t coming from me,” Royster said. “It felt like it was coming from his essence and it felt like it made what I had to say more important.”

The production used several forms of multimedia to aid the stories told on stage. Visual media was projected on fabrics that were hung, staggered across the back of the stage to accompany the performances by members of the ensemble.

Letters to Milk from those both inspired and repulsed by his activism shone on the fabrics as ensemble members performed the words, embodying the individuals who sent the letters.

One of the most impactful moments throughout the play was the retelling of the AIDS Memorial Quilt’s first display in 1987 on the National Mall in Washington D.C. The 54-ton quilt was created to honor the individuals who lost their lives to the AIDS pandemic.

Audience member and a close friend of Loughrey, Gregory Jeffers, was especially moved, erupting into tears when images of the memorial were displayed on the fabrics.

“For me, the AIDS Quilt bit was probably one of the most emotionally challenging parts for me,” Jeffers said. “I mean, I have two panels in the quilt. Two of my lovers were in the quilt, so it was really hard.”

Audio components were utilized throughout the play from live audio recordings of riots that followed Milk’s death to a emotional audio tape of Milk nine days before his assassination.

Milk’s audio tape concluded the play with a message of hope and desire for LGBTQ activism to continue even after his death.

“Should a bullet enter my brain, let that bullet destroy every closet door in the country,” Milk’s voice said, resonating throughout the theater. “Dear Harvey” will run until Oct. 20 in the University Theater with shows starting at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $18 for students, $23 for the general public, and $20 for faculty, staff, military and senior citizens. They can be purchased online at the College of the Arts website.

This story’s featured photo has been updated. 

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