Letters to Harvey Milk become stage performance

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By Chris Huqueriza

For the 35th anniversary of queer activist Harvey Milk’s death, a commemorative play titled “Dear Harvey” recounts his life through the people who knew him best.

Infused with original music by Thomas Hodges, the play is based on over 30 first-person interviews of Milk’s friends, conducted by Patricia Loughrey. Milk’s own personal writings are also included to give an in-depth look at the first openly gay man elected to a major U.S. public office.

The play premieres in San Francisco at the New American Conservatory on January 16.  

“Harvey Milk is still relevant today. His themes still resonate with us,” said Actor David Bicha, who participated in a Q&A at the Gay & Lesbian Center of the San Francisco Main Library on Tuesday, January 15 with the rest of the “Dear Harvey” cast. 

In the play, former colleagues such as the creator of the AIDS Quilt, Cleve Jones, Milk’s former Campaign Manager Anne Kronenberg, openly gay politician John Laird, photographer Dan Nicoletta, Harvey’s nephew Stuart Milk, politician and LGBT Activist Tom Ammiano, State Senator Chris Kehoe, and activist Robin Tyler all share their stories on how Milk influenced everyone around him and his influence on the civil rights movement that he helped jumpstart.

The play is described as: “A drag queen, a State Senator, an international gay rights activist, a nineteen-year-old composer… the play weaves these voices and more with the personal and political writings of Harvey Milk to paint a portrait of a leader, and a vision for equality.”

The play incorporated pictures taken by Dan Nicoletta. Director Allen Sawyer also discussed how he auditioned potential actors. Rather than asking them to read from the play itself, and judging them based on their theater experience, Sawyer asked them to choose a political speech from history and deliver the monologue. He wanted his cast to be politically smart and involved, so they might feel an emotional connection to Milk.

Sawyer also talked about how the play helps to spotlight the role of women in the story of Harvey Milk. He believes many works, such as the 2008 biopic “Milk,” failed to represent them. 

“In Harvey Milk’s story, women are left out, and yet they are important,” said Sawyer.

The play aims to provide a mutli-faceted human portrait of the larger-than-life man who fought for LGBT rights in the 1970s. 

“He wasn’t a genius, he wasn’t a saint,” said Actor Aaron Wimmer during the Q&A discussion. “He was a different type of politician: willing to engage and take the time to talk. He championed the rights of all people – from women to ethnic races to the elderly.”

Milk was assassinated in 1978. He served almost 11 months in office and passed prominent gay rights ordinances for San Francisco – most notably decreasing police harassment and outlawing employment discrimination for the LGBT community. Milk also campaigned for different legislation regarding marijuana usage and gun control, both topics that are still being intensely debated today.

“LGBT History is not taught anywhere in the school system, but his small acts have reverberated throughout the world,” said Actor Brian Patterson. “His place in history needs to be respected.”

Harvey Milk has been in the news lately for other reasons, as the city of San Francisco considers renaming San Francisco International Airport to Harvey Milk International Airport.

“What a trip it will be to go from the Ronald Reagan National Airport to the Harvey Milk International Airport,” Sawyer jokes.

Presented by the Beat Project, the play originated in San Diego and previously showed in New York. “Dear Harvey” will be at the New American Conservatory until February 24.

For the full scheudle and to purchase tickets, visit the Conservatory’s site here

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