“Dear Harvey” Shows That We All Still Need Milk

Patricia Loughrey wrote Dear Harvey in 2008, in large part because Dan Kirsch, the former director of the Diversionary Theatre Company in San Diego, the third oldest LBGT theater in the country, was concerned that with the 30th anniversary of Harvey Milk’s assassination coming up in November of that year, younger members of that community were forgetting him. So, he commissioned Loughrey to write an oral history, based on words written and spoken by Milk as well as interviews with people who knew and worked with him

The Sean Penn-directed biopic Milk, released in December, 2008, certainly elevated Milk’s stature in the popular consciousness. But Hollywood is Hollywood and even excellent, Academy Award-winning films comes and go, shunted aside by the next commodity. But Loughrey’s play has been produced dozens of times across the country since its initial production in 2009 and, as the current California Repertory Company  production at Cal State Long Beach emphatically shows, the life and legacy of the progressive icon and gay rights champion is not something just for the history books, retrospectives or memorials; rather than an echo reverberating from the past, it’s an insistent cadence still keeping time today—at least for those who care to bend their ear toward it.

Directed by Peter Howard, this California Repertory production shows that time, whether the 10 years since Loughrey collected her interviews for this oral history, or the 40 years since Milk’s murder, has not lessened the immediacy and impact of Milk’s brief, but captivating, moment in the public eye. In  fact, viewed from within the often stifling, paralytic prism of TrumpAmerica 2018, with its hateful rhetoric and, far worse, violent assaults on LGBTQ+ people (according to those who keep track of horrors like this, 2017 was the deadliest year yet to not be straight in America) Milk’s story, work and passion feel more urgent than ever.

That’s because Dear Harvey isn’t a remembrance, but a reminder, less a memorial/memory play than a rousing rallying cry to awareness, if not action.  Instead of a stagy play with sets and props and all those theatrical conventions that are so terribly important but also so terrible constraining so often, or a piece of Serious Theater that  feels like a museum piece stuck in time, the use of real people’s real words and lack of exaggerated theatrics viewed in our contemporary context makes it seem vibrant and alive. It’s an often sad, often liberating, always energizing jolt that powerfully suggests that despite the progress made by the LBGTQ community and others Milk championed, a great deal of work remains.

But though it lives and breathes politics and mobilizing and standing up and speaking out, Loughrey said that was the last thing she intended to write.

“I felt that because LBGT history is so ignored and erased and not taught in school that it was important [her play] was a historical document, rather than an interpretation,” said Loughrey, who teaches playwriting and English composition at Cal State Long Beach.  [But as a writer] I’m not particularly political. I’m more compelled by personal stories and personal relationships and what continues to inspire me with Harvey on that personal level is that even though he [helped] make changes that were so profound politically and made such an impact, a huge part of that impact was done one-on-one, through the people that met him.”

Through the course of the 85-minute play, an 11-member ensemble delivers Milk’s written and recorded words, along with the memories of some two-dozen people, from homophobic Iowan hatemongers penning death letters to Milk, to gay rights activists, politicians and ordinary folks who were all touched in some way by the uniquely personal stamp Milk put on his meteoric public life. But though stirring, defiant, inspiring and poignant, there’s not a shred of iconography to the piece; Milk is absolutely an LBGT icon, as well as a poster child for the kind of progressive politics that, some 40 years after his death, finally seems to be making a dent in our calcified, miserably deflating two-party system. But Dear Harvey is truly about an ordinary man, albeit one with his own laundry list of foibles, who through the force of his personal integrity and ability to connect to all kinds of people on their level achieved extraordinary successes. All of which came, ironically enough, long after he was dead.

Rather than hero worship, what makes Dear Harvey so impactful, hell, necessary, right here and right now, is that it reminds us that the leaders we most desperately need won’t be found preaching atop mountains or screeching via Twitter, but will well up from within that complicated, contradictory mess of what makes humans human: their hearts.

That is underscored by words delivered by the actor playing Cleve Jones, the creator of the AIDS Quilt, and an activist in two communities that Milk brought together in his coalition, LBGTQ and labor:

“You can be this totally ordinary person with this really fucked up life but if you have courage and speak the truth and are willing to stick it out, it’s amazing what you can do.”

University Theater,Cal State Long Beach, 1250 Bellflower Blvd., Long Beach, (562) 985-5562. Wed.-Sat., 7:30 p.m. Closes Sat. $18-$23. www.csulb.edu.

Joel Beers has written about theater and other stuff for this infernal rag since its very first issue in, when was that again???

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