May 8 2013 12:00 AM

All-star '8' brings gay marriage debate to Lansing, hoping to end it

A timeless saga of the human spirit that will inspire generations to come?

Screw that.

“Our hope is that this play will be obsolete in two years,” Chad Badgero declared.

On Friday, Badgero directs a star-studded, one-time-only staged reading of “8,” a multi-layered account of the 2009 federal trial over Proposition 8, California’s gay marriage ban. 

The California court refused to release a video record of the trial, an embarrassing fiasco for proponents of Prop 8. In response, Dustin Lance Black — who won an Academy Award in 2009 for writing the screenplay for “Milk” — crafted a gay-marriage passion play out of trial transcripts and interviews. Since the show’s New York premiere in September 2011, it has been re-enacted by groups ranging from community theater troupes to Hollywood royalty — a March 2012 Los Angeles production featured George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Martin Sheen, Jamie Lee Curtis, Kevin Bacon and a dozen other megastars.

For Friday’s reading, Badgero lassoed an A-list of Lansing luminaries. Tucked into the huge cast of 21 are familiar faces like TV anchorman-about-town Evan Pinsonnault as Freedom to Marry founder Evan Wolfson; “Quizbusters” host Matt Ottinger as a broadcast journalist; Lansing Community College performing arts coordinator Melissa Kaplan as plaintiff Kris Perry; Brad Rutledge, one of Badgero’s Peppermint Creek mainstays, plays pro-Prop-8 attorney Charles Cooper; and theater titan Ken Beachler presides over the whole shebang as suffer-no-bullshit Judge Vaughan Walker.

“8” is more than a lightning primer on the legal precedents and arguments that frame the gay marriage debate. To flesh out the courtroom wrangles and show why they matter, Black wove testimony from the trial with personal interviews dramatizing the human impact of laws like Prop 8 or Michigan’s constitutional ban on gay marriage.

Leaving the high rhetoric to the attorneys, first-hand accounts describe what it’s like to endure corrosive, day-to-day stigma as second-class citizens.

“My partner and I want to open an account,” plaintiff Paul Katami says to a bank teller in one exchange.

“A business account? An LLC?” the teller blinks back.

It’s like that every day, Katami testifies.

“Being able to call him my husband is something everyone understands,” he declares.

Clips of anti-gay scare commercials used in the run-up to the Prop 8 referendum are starkly juxtaposed to bankrupt testimony from “experts” who couldn’t come up with a single example of the alleged harm they argued that gay marriage would inflict on society. 

“It’s easy to make statements on TV commercials, where you can’t be cross-examined under oath,” Boies says. 

Diego Love-Ramirez plays Dr. Ilan Meyer, an expert witness who testifies on the mental health impact of discrimination on gay couples. Love-Ramirez said he was hit especially hard by the “protect our children” tone of anti-gay-marriage rhetoric: He and his husband, Kent Love, have a 2-year-old son named Lucas. Love-Ramirez said he might never have come to Michigan if he knew it would go into “decline” on gay rights, but he is hopeful that things will turn around. 

“People who come to the show will see that our community is coming together, from very well-known people to people who are not so well known,” he said.

The gay rights struggle has given rise to a new form of drama that is part journalism, part activism, part town meeting and part news crawl. In March, Badgero directed “The Laramie Project: 10 Years Later,” which documented the aftermath of the 1998 hate-crime murder of Matthew Shepard. 

Since the play’s debut, the American Foundation for Equal Rights, or AFER, has licensed “8” to hundreds of schools and community theaters nationwide. The rights are given free to college theater departments, theaters with a “social mission,” and even to couples who want to read excerpts at their weddings. However, the play can only be presented one night — productions are limited to maximize geographical spread. And if a theater company charges admission, part of the proceeds goes to the foundation.

One pair of plaintiffs, a lesbian couple, is played by Kaplan and Kris Koop Ouelette, a New York actress who played in Broadway’s “Phantom of the Opera” (as all three female principals) and “Cats,” and recently moved to Lansing. The male gay couple is played by Michael Banghart, a mainstay in Badgero’s company, and Josh Brewer, a law student and actor who wasn’t known to Badgero before auditions, but “simply gave the most sincere, beautiful reading I’ve ever seen.” For the first time, Badgero has acknowledged the play’s personal meaning for him by casting a non-actor — his boyfriend, Matthew Swan — in a bit part. 

The production is a point of local pride for Badgero, among the most tireless and enthusiastic boosters of Lansing’s cultural scene. After years as a volunteer with the Old Town Commercial Association and several more with the Arts Council of Greater Lansing, Badgero was recently named Arts Education Program Manager at the Michigan Council for the Arts and Cultural Affairs.

“I want Lansing to be a town that has done ‘8,’” he said. “Not, ‘let’s watch the L.A. production on YouTube.’ The dialogue is happening everywhere and we should be having it in Lansing.”

‘8,’ a documentary play by Dustin Lance Black
Fundraiser for American Foundation for Equal Rights
Peppermint Creek Theatre Co.
8 p.m. Friday
Miller Performing Arts Center
6025 Curry Lane, Lansing