Contributed by Vincent Marano
In theater, the adjective “life-changing,” is clichéd and often overused. I remember a lot of great performances; Fiona Shaw in Medea, Al Pacino in Salome, Ian McKellan in Amadeus, and great plays: anything by Mac Rogers, August Wilson or Athol Fugard; just fill in your favorite. While inspirational, very few plays or performances caused me to stand at the end of a pier somewhere and stare in to the void, wondering about the worthiness of my talent and the wisdom of my career choice.
However, there is one play that stands out, that changed my view of theater forever, that made me want to write and direct; Emily Mann’s Execution of Justice. I am sure nothing I saw that Wednesday matinee (I called in sick) was terribly original; the epic structure of this play about murders of Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone of San Francisco by Dan White, the use of reporters, news clips and TV monitors (two three-story banks of monitors to be exact!) to convey exposition and force the audience into the action. The absurd characters like as a nun-drag queen Sister Boom Boom (played by a young Wesley Snipes) representing the conscious of the homophobic world at the beginning of the AIDS crisis.
Never mind about my outrage over the viability of the Twinkie-Defense, the pyrrhic pointlessness of the assassinations, the suicide-as-coda which deepened the human tragedy even further, it was the deft audience engagement that struck me. Here was a big, complex, hugely entertaining piece that touch me like no other theater experience I had before. It incited and indicted the audience, it leaven the atrocity with irony and gave minor characters a grace that transcended the real events it portrayed.
I thought it was just a trick at first. That Ms. Mann’s theatrical verisimilitude had succeeded in galvanizing my spirit and sense of righteous in much the same way a few drinks and no day job got me to argue over philosophical ephemera until 4 in the morning. Yes, it was political theater, but, it was so much more. Execution of Justice cracked open my soul and allowed me a few minutes to peak in and see what was I missing. Good or ill, I have been searching for it ever since.