Dustin Lance Black Debuts Prop. 8 Play in New York

4:08 PM PST 09/20/2011 by David Rooney

"To me, this is an educational outreach tool," the writer says at the star-studded one-night-only presentation. "It's important that people know the arguments on both sides as this case makes its way to the Supreme Court."

NEW YORK -- With Morgan Freeman needling witnesses and John Lithgow socking across the impassioned concluding arguments, there was bound to be some dramatic heat. But the most emotional moment of Monday's starry one-night-only Broadway presentation of Dustin Lance Black's play, 8, came when plaintiffs and prosecutors joined the actors portraying them onstage for the curtain call.

The play was composed out of transcripts, plaintiff interviews and courtroom observations from the 2010 Proposition 8 trial in San Francisco, at the end of which Chief Judge Vaughn Walker ruled that California's ban on same-sex marriage was unconstitutional. That decision currently is inching through the appeals process.

A 2009 Oscar winner for his original screenplay of Milk, Black was a vocal opponent of Prop. 8 during the 2008 election and is a board member of American Foundation for Equal Rights, the advocacy organization for which profits from the Broadway staged reading and all future presentations of 8 are destined.

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Black wrote the play during research trips for his screenplays on Warners' upcoming Clint Eastwood feature, J. Edgar, and his next project, Barefoot Bandit, which is coming together at Fox, with David Gordon Green likely to direct.

"I carried around these huge binders with trial transcripts and spent all my time combing through them looking for the choice bits that would tell the story of what went on inside that courtroom," Black said.

While Black doesn't rule out the possibility of developing the material into a feature, for now, the play is headed to drama-program workshops at Carnegie Mellon and Northwestern universities. "We want to personalize the play and deepen it to the point where it's ready to be seen by the world," he said.

"To me, this is an educational outreach tool," added Black. "It's important that people know the arguments on both sides as this case makes its way to the Supreme Court."

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Black said he was concerned about presenting the play for the first time in New York, given that the same-sex marriage bill was passed by state legislature in June, potentially robbing the issue of some urgency. But rousing support from actors signing on for the event, plus sponsors including Steve Bing, Roland Emmerich and David Geffen, who funded the production and its splashy after party at the Gotham Club, indicated that strong sentiment remains behind the push for equal rights on a federal level.

"New Yorkers just got it," said Black. "We didn't have to explain anything to the people who gave their time and money to this endeavor. They said, yes, we want to lead the way to full national equality."

In addition to Freeman and Lithgow as the crack litigating team of David Boies and Theodore B. Olson, the premiere of 8 featured Ellen Barkin, Christine Lahti, Matt Bomer and Cheyenne Jackson as the two couples that filed suit against Prop. 8 in Federal District Court, all of whom were in attendance at the event.

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Directed by Joe Mantello (Wicked), the reading was staged at the Eugene O'Neill Theater, where Tony winner The Book of Mormon is playing to sell-out crowds. (That show has no Monday performance.) Given the financial support for the Prop. 8 campaign from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, there was a certain irony in 8 being performed beneath set designer Scott Pask's playful Mormon Tabernacle proscenium.

Also among the cast were Bradley Whitford as lead defense attorney Charles Cooper, Bob Balaban as a methodical Judge Walker and Yeardley Smith, bringing the voice of Lisa Simpson to an expert witness on the psychology of marriage. Rob Reiner drew the biggest laughs as defense witness David Blankenhorn, evading "yes" or "no" answers while inadvertently sabotaging his own shaky arguments.

Spotted in the audience were Bruce Cohen, Chace Crawford, Anna Deavere Smith, Thomas Roberts, Barbara Walters and Brian Williams.

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"I've been an advocate for women's rights all my life, and gay Americans are I think the last minority not granted equal rights under the law," said Lahti, summing up the reason so many actors lent their support. "I think theater has the power to make people think about their prejudices, and a play like this can help affect change. I'm honored to have been a part of it."

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