Arts & Life, Events, Fine & Performing Arts

‘Dear Harvey’ tells the story of an LGBT pioneer and activist

While many have heard the name Harvey Milk, not everyone is aware of the lasting impact the late politician had on the course of LGBT history. California Repertory is going to change that with its next production, “Dear Harvey,” which chronicles the history-altering life of LGBT rights activist and politician, Milk.

“Dear Harvey” celebrates the life and activism of Milk, the first openly gay elected official in California and will be running Oct. 11-20 in the University Theatre. The show begins every night at 7 p.m., except for the Sunday matinee which will start at 2 p.m.

Theatre Department Chair Jeff Janisheski says that the production is pivotal that audiences come see “Dear Harvey” in order to keep his legacy alive.

“This play is very important and it reminds us of some key aspects of Harvey’s life,” Janisheski said. “He was someone who woke up to activism so late in his life and yet created an incredible momentum of activism in San Francisco. He also was an inspiration because he discovered his own truth and decided to speak out about the injustices around him.”

Janisheski also hopes that “Dear Harvey” will inspire people, and act as a call to action to keep fighting and standing up for what is right.

“This play is a real credible reminder that it’s never too late to speak up or have a voice,” Janisheski said. “It’s never too late to be an activist. ‘Hope will never be silent’ was one of Milk’s famous quotes and I think that message is an integral part of the fabric of this play.”  

One unique aspect of “Dear Harvey” is that Cal Rep has teamed up with the Long Beach Parks Department to offer an exclusive performance for community members.

“We are going to perform parts of the play in Harvey Milk Park in Downtown Long Beach,” Janisheski said. “This performance is meant to commemorate the 40th anniversary of Milk’s assassination.”

This special performance downtown will take place in November after the play has closed on campus.

“Dear Harvey” was written by Long Beach State professor Patricia Loughrey. When Loughrey was commissioned to write the play in 2008, she had little knowledge of Milk’s life or work.

“I knew only what most people knew who were alive in 1978,” Loughrey said. “At the time, I was teaching at San Diego State and I asked a young LGBT student of mine, who was a composer, to work with me on the show. This way, we’d be able to offer the perspectives of two different generations.”

During the brainstorming process, Loughrey and her student assistant decided early on that they did not want the play to focus on Milk’s assassination, but rather, celebrate his life.

“We wanted to capture his legacy and the inspiration he gave people,” Loughrey said. “We knew we needed to talk to people who actually knew him and we started by posting a simple flyer in an LGBT center in San Diego that read, ‘Did you know Harvey Milk? Did his life impact yours?’”

Loughrey received a phone call from drag queen Nicole Murray Ramirez, who had known Milk. Ramirez’s recount of Milk’s life was the first of many that Loughrey would use to weave “Dear Harvey” together.

“We interviewed many people, including his nephew, Stewart Milk,” Loughrey said. “We wanted the stories of people whose lives had changed due to Harvey to be the bulk of this play. It’s also important to note that much of LGBTQ history in general is kept mostly through oral tradition and that is part of what has kept Harvey’s story alive to this day.”  

Loughrey hopes that audience members take away the message of equality and love that Milk was always intent on spreading.

“Harvey Milk saw that we are equal and we are just one people,” Loughrey said. “My hope is that anyone who comes to the play catches a bit of that feeling and understands the truth that Harvey spoke that we are all just one family. I think that was important medicine then, but it’s especially important medicine now.”

Janisheski’s personal note in the play’s program discloses dangerous and telling statistics about the LGBTQ+ community, including the fact that in 2017, “at least 52 people were killed as a result of anti-LGBTQ+ violence.” It also notes that “at least 129 anti-LGBTQ+ bills were introduced in numerous states in 2017.”

Both Janisheski and Loughrey agree that “Dear Harvey” comes at a crucial time in our nation’s history when certain rights of the LGBTQ community are being threatened.

“There’s still a massive amount of work to do,” Janisheski said. “There’s been a huge upswing in violence and oppression against LGBTQ+ people, especially trans people, and the fight is not yet over.”

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