“DEAR HARVEY”: A Love Letter to Mr. Milk
Anyone who is lamenting the lack of innovation in the world of theater today should not throw in the towel just yet. For truly provocative and original stories and themes, we need look no further than the pageant of American and world history. In many cases, these real stories are just aching to be told again, and they feature some unsung heroes and heroines whose voices are more relevant than ever in 2010. One of these heroes, of the GLBT community and beyond, is the late San Francisco activist and politician Harvey Bernard Milk, who would have turned 80 this year. The 2008 Academy-Award winning feature film “Milk” was likely the first time that many Americans learned about Mr. Milk, who was history’s first openly gay American elected official. Milk, who came out at age 14, was actually born and raised in New York. The City by the Bay, however, became his adopted home. He was nicknamed “The Mayor of Castro Street”, and made his mark in a big way. Milk won a seat on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors and served until 1978, when he was assassinated at age 48. While the there have been some modest tributes to Milk’s life through the years (most notably the aforementioned feature film, the Award-winning documentary 1984 “The Times of Harvey Milk“, and the high school in New York City named after his honor), many still believe that Mr. Harvey Milk has still never gotten the full respect he deserved as a patriot and politician.
Even astute followers of LGBT history who may think they know every last tidbit about Harvey will likely learn a few new things about the self-styled politico with Patricia Loughrey’s “Dear Harvey”. Directed by Dan Kirsch and featuring music by Thomas Hodges, the lively and heartfelt piece is constructed of archived speeches, reflections via recent interviews, and written memories by Milk and those who knew Milk best. Most of these voices are or were activists in their own right. They include Harvey’s nephew, activist Stewart Milk (Mark Peters); activist and Imperial Court System royalty Nicole Murray-Ramirez (Vash Boddie); California State Senator Christine Kehoe (Katherine McLeod); Anne Kronenberg (Jacqueline Sydney), Milk’s final campaign manager; and others, including Robin Tyler (Lynne Rosenberg), Daniel Nicolette (Boddie), Mary Stockton (McLeod), Jackie Grover (Rosenberg), Dottie Wine (Sydney), Tom Ammiano (Ira Spector), and others. The seven men and women of the cast all perform with the same positive energy and gusto that characterized Milk himself; as an audience member, you may find yourself holding back from jumping up and breaking into applause– particularly when we hear Milk’s now-famous line, “My name is Harvey Milk, and I want to recruit you!” Milk‘s contribution to history, GLBT and beyond, comes through in a big way: He encouraged all gays and lesbians to come out en masse. He encouraged all people to get involved in the voting process, regardless of income or ability. He championed for the rights of all, not just minorities. We are also reminded that San Francisco in the early ’70’s, when Milk first arrived, was not yet as tolerant or even as gay-friendly as we may have believed it to be.
In the hands of a less talented director or less enthusiastic cast, “Dear Harvey” could have come across as a staged reading… and as we all know, stage readings sometimes have the tendency to be static. However, this production is very fluid, fast-moving, and lively. The play is really bolstered by the montage of authentic, vintage photos of Milk and the Castro district. In addition, some creative directorial touches succeed in showing us Harvey Milk the man, not just Harvey Milk the politician. One of these moments is when Milk’s friend Alan Pettit (Ira Spector) recalls the vibe of San Francisco in the 1970’s when he first met Milk: as Donna Summer belts in the background, the actor describes how it was all about “the clone look“ and disco music. It’s here that we learn that Harvey was, apparently, a great dancer! The audience also get to see real letters written to Milk, projected on the screen. Most of them were supportive, but a few showed the same old anti-gay vitriol which exists to this day. Beyond a history lesson, the play innovatively explores, through the words of Milk’s surviving peers, how Milk would have reacted to the current state of our community today, both the bad and the good. This includes the AIDS epidemic alongside the explosion of openly gay and lesbian politicians. A truly provocative moment comes when Scott Striegel, as Milk’s friend and fellow activist Cleve Jones, describes how he went on to found the The NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt.
“Dear Harvey” climaxes with the play’s 22-year old music composer Thomas Hodges reading from a letter he had written to Milk, whose activism inspired him personally and creatively. A passage from the letter reads, “I wish I could have known you, and yet I feel like I do in a weird way.” This is very likely how the audience will feel after seeing this fine play. .
“Dear Harvey” is playing as part of New York City’s Fringe Festival. There is only one more performance of “Dear Harvey” left, on Saturday August 28th at 8:15PM. At The Soho playhouse, 15 Vandam Street, NYC. For tickets, visit: