Can't Think Straight
The central question of Dustin Lance Black’s courtroom drama, 8: A Play About Marriage Equality, is the same central question to marriage debates that have being going on through the United States courts since the first states passed same-sex marriage laws.
This question goes something like this: is there something about the institution of marriage that is so innately heterosexual that allowing homosexual couples into the institution would damage the institution and make it so that heterosexual couples would not be able to marry?
The answer that both the play and the court settle on is “no,” and that including same-sex couples into the institution of marriage could not adversely marriage in any way that would affect heterosexual couples.
Of course, this is because the play is based on the actual court trials surrounding Proposition 8 in California, and so the play exists partly to show American audiences the evidence presented in the courts and partly to prove to Americans that same-sex marriage really isn’t the big boogeyman that the Christian right makes it out to be.
The argument for same-sex marriage the play presents is compelling, but despite being incredibly well-acted – or more accurately, well-read, as this was a loosely acted reading of the play – by its star-studded cast (including the likes of George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Jamie Lee Curtis, Martin Sheen, and Kevin Bacon), deftly scripted, and filled with emotional and dramatic tension, by the end of the play, you begin to wonder who the play was actually written for.
If it’s written for the progressive types in the United States who are for same-sex marriage, it’s safe to say this play will be viewed as a huge success. However, they’ll be preaching to the converted. We all know same-sex marriage is a no-brainer.
If the play was written with the intention of “converting” the anti-same-sex facet of American culture to agree that same-sex marriage is legitimate, they would have failed miserably because of they incredibly unsympathetic and quite frankly bumbling portrayal of the opposing side.
Anti-same-sex marriage advocates will not be so pleased to see themselves portrayed as bumbling and sometimes monstrous individuals who care more about “the children” – that ubiquitous yet invisible cultural sign that we must protect lest we destroy our own race – than the basic civil right of any individual living in the United States.
The play seems to exist wholly in its echo chamber and wants nothing more than to beat its opposition down to the ground in some twisted David and Goliath scenario. This, of course, is a function of the fact that it’s a courtroom drama and thus is explicitly presenting an argument for a political and ideological dilemma. It becomes so wrapped up in presenting a convincing side for same-sex marriage that it ends up reducing the case against same-sex marriage to a carnival.
Maybe it was like that. The play is based heavily on the actual transcripts of the court proceedings, so maybe the case against same-sex marriage was as outrageously ill-informed as it’s made out to be.
Despite this, the play seems to work.
It works on an intellectual and emotional level because it is clear that everyone involved cared about the message and believed that American citizens would be better off with same-sex marriage. It managed to present a compelling argument in the form of the courtroom setting and managed to infuse enough heart, humor, and tension to create a consistent dramatic flow.
The play breaks up its narrative with actual ads for Prop 8 inserted into the drama – horrifying in their demonization of same-sex marriage and deification of “our children” – and asides with one of the two families, Sandy Stier and Kris Perry, who are challenging Prop 8. There’s a sense of rhythm and momentum to the play that is never tiresome despite the fact that, on paper, the structure must have been incredibly uncreative.
It pulls on those ever-fickle nationalist heartstrings that even the most independent and anti-nationalist among us have buried deep inside of us. Look for the moment when Chris Colfer plays a witness who recalls his time at gay conversion camp: the bits of humour infused with the story help to keep the audience from drowning in their own tears.
And ultimately, that is where the play succeeds. It succeeds because, like those who championed Prop 8 as protecting our children, it champions same-sex marriage as giving every person equal rights. If you were to go into 8 unconvinced that same-sex marriage was beneficial, you’d come out with a change of heart only because the play is so damn good at playing to every one of those humanitarian bones in your body.