In order to receive seats in the audience to watch the play, students at El… (Patrick T. Fallon / For the…)
The price of admission to last weekend's play at El Camino Real Charter High School was anything but typical. Then again, neither was the play.
Students had to submit essays describing their views on gay marriage. The play, "8," dramatizes the 2010 trial that overturned California's ban on gay marriage. El Camino's production was probably the first time it has been performed by a high school cast, a main reason why author Dustin Lance Black attended and participated in a discussion afterward.
About 250 students turned in essays. Director and theater teacher Sue Freitag read every one, and, in the end, excluded no one who wished to attend the event in Woodland Hills. Nearly all 600 seats were filled.
"I like guys and girls," one student wrote. "My boyfriend is very supportive of me and who I am. Others not so much, so I want to see how our government thinks about people like me."
Another wrote: "Many people who are homosexual have been raised wanting a traditional wedding and it's definitely not fair that they can't do something as beautiful as marriage because of a law!,,, My mom's cousin is lesbian and I think her and her girlfriend are very romantic and I think that's so sweet."
The essays overwhelmingly favored gay marriage.
"If someone does not support same-sex marriage, I respect their opinion," one student wrote. "But actually going out of their way to try to prevent it? I will not respect them."
Many were deeply personal.
"I had a gay uncle once and he still to this day means a lot to me," a student wrote. "He committed suicide because he was very weak from AIDS and also hated the fact no one could accept the fact he was into men."
"I know 'love' in high school often times seems silly and false," a female student wrote of her girlfriend, but "it makes me scared to think that I might never be able to call her my wife."
Many students described painful family and cultural divides.
"I was always offended when my brother talked about how 'gays are not natural' and such things," one wrote.
"In my home, my parents are for gay marriages, but at the church I attend, my pastor isn't," another recounted. The student wrote about quitting the church youth group after its leader insisted that God would not love someone who loved a person of the same gender.
Students opposed to gay marriage cited religious values.
"Jesus says that 'marriage is only between a man and women,' " a student wrote. "I believe highly in my religion and I believe what is written in the Bible."
One student took an entirely contrarian view, writing, "I do not want to see this play.... I have been discriminated for a lot of things and even so I feel ... no connection to these people because they chose to be the way they are."
The entire evening Friday was weighted strongly in favor of gay marriage. The audience cheered an actor who acknowledged during the panel that he is gay. No panelist represented a view against gay marriage.
The anti-gay marriage perspective also came off poorly in the play itself, although that was largely a product of the ineffectual defense of Proposition 8 mounted in the trial, said Black, the playwright. The trial dialogue was pulled directly from court transcripts. For the sake of the drama, a better defense of Proposition 8 would have been helpful, Black said.
That side's attorney, Charles Cooper, becomes a figure of pathos in the play.
Cooper's positions were "not my personal views on the subject," said junior Brian Felker, 16, who played that lawyer. "But I really put myself in the shoes of the character and how he would feel."
During rehearsal, the students met a gay couple who sued to overturn the law, and they also studied their real-life counterparts, such as Theodore Olson, who parted from some conservatives to challenge Proposition 8.
"I know he's been through a lot in his life," said 15-year-old junior Dean Rabinowitz, who played Olson and was referring to the death of Olson's wife in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. "Mr. Olson is a very passionate lawyer and it seems he really cares about what he is supporting."
Black, 38 and an Oscar-winning screenwriter, was impressed by the passion in the essays.
"I kept tearing up," he said. When he was in high school, there was "so much fear and bigotry and hatred.... Your only choice was to be closeted and survive high school."
These students represent "a huge change, and a life-saving change."
The legal case, meanwhile, continues, with the Supreme Court expected to decide whether it will hear an appeal this month.