May 27, 2020

McCarter Theatre Presents Online Reading of “Execution of Justice”; Community Readers Act in Emily Mann Drama About Harvey Milk’s Murder

“EXECUTION OF JUSTICE”: A community reading of “Execution of Justice” was presented May 22 as part of McCarter Theatre’s continuing McCarter@Home series of online events. Written by McCarter’s outgoing Artistic Director and Resident Playwright Emily Mann, the docudrama examines the trial for the murder of Harvey Milk — and reactions from a “Chorus of Uncalled Witnesses.” Above: “My name is Harvey Milk, and I’m here to recruit you!” (Photo ©1978 by Daniel Nicoletta)

By Donald H. Sanborn III

Emily Mann started writing Execution of Justice in 1983, seven years before she began her 30-year tenure as McCarter Theatre’s artistic director and resident playwright. The docudrama examines the trial of Dan White, who in 1978 assassinated San Francisco Mayor George Moscone and City Supervisor Harvey Milk; the latter was the first openly gay official to be elected in California.

Execution of Justice was commissioned by San Francisco’s Eureka Theatre Company. The play was presented in 1985 by Arena Stage in Washington D.C. A Broadway production followed in 1986.

McCarter hosted an online community reading of Execution of Justice last Friday. The event commemorated the 90th anniversary of Harvey Milk’s birth, and was presented in collaboration with the Bayard Rustin Center for Social Justice.

“No theatrical or performance experience is presumed; this is not a performance,” Artistic Engagement Manager Paula T. Alekson assured a multigenerational and diverse group of over 50 participants who had logged into Zoom, or dialed into a specially designated telephone line, to play one of the roles. Readers who participated via Zoom were asked to log in using their first name and last initial; before the reading started their captions were edited to identify the characters they were portraying.

Certain roles, such as defense attorney Douglas Schmidt, were portrayed by different readers for each of the play’s two acts. Mann helped read the part of Sister Boom Boom, the activist and drag nun, who is scripted as a voice for Milk’s supporters.

Mann prefaced the event by recounting the play’s genesis. During a cab ride from the venue where Eureka was presenting her play Still Life, Mann asked the driver, “What is the most important memory you have of recent history in your community?” The driver responded, “I was driving my cab, when on the radio it came that [Milk and Moscone] had been shot and killed.”

Mann remembers, “It shattered his world. It happened again when the verdict [in which White was sentenced for manslaughter rather than murder] came down, and the people rioted; and his taxi was set on fire. So I thought, ‘this is an unhealed wound in this city.’”

Alekson explained, “As a documentary theater piece the words in the play are the authentic words of the people who spoke them — in all their beauty and thoughtfulness, as well as in their ugliness and ignorance. So we’ll honor the words, understanding that words have power.”

Resident Production Stage Manager Cheryl Mintz read the stage directions, which begin: “A bare stage. A white screen overhead. On screen: images of San Francisco. Hot, fast music. Images of Milk and Moscone punctuate the visuals.”

Act one, subtitled “Murder,” opens with White admitting to his wife Mary Ann, “I shot the mayor and Harvey.” The play’s thematic conflict is established by juxtaposing monologues delivered by a Cop, who wears a “Free Dan White” T-shirt; and Sister Boom Boom, who decries “the cycle of brutality and ignorance which pervades our culture.”

The prosecution and defense select a jury. Prosecutor Thomas F. Norman presents the facts of the case, including White’s resignation from his position as the supervisor of District 8, and his possible withdrawal of that resignation, as well as the victims’ wounds. Defense attorney Schmidt paints White as an as an “idealistic young man” who “believed very strongly in the traditional American values,” highlighting his service in Vietnam, as well as his civil service as a police officer and fireman.

Toward the end of the act we hear White protest to a homicide inspector, “I’m trying to do a good job and I saw this city as it’s going, kind of downhill and I was always just a lonely vote on the board. I was trying to do a good job for the city.”

The second act is subtitled “In Defense of Murder.” Schmidt posits that White’s recent junk food diet is indicative of depression that resulted in diminished capacity. This “Twinkie Defense” persuades the jury that White’s decision-making was impaired; he is convicted of manslaughter, and a furious judge — identified only as “The Court” — imposes a light sentence of seven years and eight months. (White committed suicide in 1985.)

A “Chorus of Uncalled Witnesses” reacts to the trial and verdict. A character identified as Young Mother observes, “To this jury Dan White was their son.” Another character, identified as “Milk’s Friend,” reflects on assassinations: “I remember coming home from school in second grade — JFK was killed — five years later, Martin Luther King. It’s a frame of reference.”

The event, which lasted nearly four hours, concluded with a “talking circle.” Several listeners admitted to being conflicted between admiring the performance of the reader who portrayed White, and anger at his actions and words. Mann observed this cognitive dissonance as well: “I didn’t have any sympathy for Dan White when I was writing it! Once it was performed … people were sobbing. That, to me, is interesting; it’s what theater is all about.”

A participant named Eddie praised Mann’s nuanced approach to White’s character, and compared him to George Zimmerman, who killed Trayvon Martin. “As much as we may despise Dan White, and hate what he did … we need to look at the generations behind and say, “How was Dan White created?”

Others observed the play’s contemporary relevance, wondering aloud how much the culture has changed since that time. A participant named Lisa believes, “We think a lot differently about mental illness now than we did at the time that this trial took place. People talk about it more openly now …  having a daughter with disabilities, I especially feel close to Harvey Milk as a character, for trying to help people who didn’t know where else to turn.”

Aside from standard technical issues such as the necessity of speakers remembering to un-mute themselves, the event proceeded remarkably smoothly, given the scope of the undertaking and the number of participants. Despite Alekson’s comment that no acting experience was “presumed or required,” the vast majority of performances were impassioned and convincing. The reader who portrayed The Court wore black, and used a Zoom background that resembled a courtroom.

The online format did have some disadvantages. Crowd scenes, such as the candlelight vigil for Harvey Milk, would have benefited from the energy that comes from being able to perform in a physical space.

But in other ways the format serves the play well. Mann’s script slightly predates the prevalence of talk radio, cable news, and social media. Listening to people read the dialogue in their own homes allows one to find equivalence to reactions to contemporary events. The reader playing Schmidt wore headphones, looking a bit like a talk show host. Characters such as Young Mother could have been posting live videos of themselves on Facebook, sharing their reactions to recent news.

At one point Alekson remarked, “Tonight is about purpose.” Observing over a hundred people logged into Zoom, for the purpose of sharing the opportunity to interact with a play that probes a telling moment in recent history, was moving.

To view the online reading of Execution of Justice, or to learn about upcoming McCarter@Home events, visit or McCarter’s Facebook page.