Thirty-five years ago, Harvey Milk sent a powerful ripple effect into political waters, ushering in a new era for civil rights. Today, more than three decades after his assassination, a new play illuminates the man and his impact on society — and gay rights — in a new way.
“Dear Harvey,” opening this week at the New Conservatory Theatre Center, centers on Milk’s vision and crowning achievements as the first openly gay man elected to a major public office in America. It is drawn from more than 30 interviews — including a state senator, activist, composer and drag queen — conducted by playwright Patricia Loughrey.
Because the show was originally commissioned in San Diego, director F. Allen Sawyer says the scope of the people Loughrey interviewed was a bit broader than the “people we all know in San Francisco.”
“There are Santa Cruz politicians and San Diego politicians,” he adds. “And to me, that was great to see — that Harvey Milk had such a wide influence. That it wasn’t just us here in San Francisco, but that people in San Diego, and, I am sure, all over the nation, were also being inspired by him. It’s wonderful to get that input from those voices.”
Sawyer was the manager of the Castro Theatre in 1978, when Milk and Mayor George Moscone were assassinated.
“The summer that gay legislation was in trouble and losing, I remember all the marches Harvey used to take us on,” he recalls. “To dissipate all the anger, one night, I think we marched up and back, and around the city twice. It was a really exciting time to be there on Castro Street and just to feel the changes that were happening.”
The play is unique in that it also features photos from Milk’s family and friends and brings to the forefront many stories not typically found in history books — “stories of a love that reached beyond fear.”
Another novelty: Each actor will take on different characters in “Dear Harvey” and every actor plays Milk at one point.
“Rather than casting people who are similar or could imitate the people, we disregarded that altogether,” Sawyer says. “I told them to approach it as if the person they were playing were a fictional character and to try to find the emotional triggers. We’re really looking for the emotional truth in all these stories.”