Santa Clara University

Santa Clara Magazine

Coming Attractions

Execution of Justice


A play by Emily Mann

Directed by Barbara Means Fraser

The year is 1978 and the city of San Francisco witnesses a shocking crime: the murder of the two men pictured: Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk, the latter the first openly gay elected official in the United States. The shooter: Supervisor Dan White, who had resigned his post because of political frustration and economic hardship.

Drawn from trial transcripts and documentary evidence, Execution of Justice deftly recounts the trial of White—examining his motives, the conflicting social and political ideals of the era, and the case’s controversial courtroom ethics, including the infamous “Twinkie defense.” Director Barbara Fraser, associate professor of theatre at SCU, brings this compelling “theater of testimony” to the stage—and leaves it to the audience to decide in what way justice was fulfilled when White was finally convicted of two counts of voluntary manslaughter.

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Docudrama details political killings in SF

An interview with Barbara Means Fraser

By Lisa Taggart

It will have been 30 years since the assassination of San Francisco Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk when “Execution of Justice” opens at the Louis B. Mayer Theatre this fall. Drawn from transcripts and published statements, the play follows the trial of former supervisor Dan White, infamous for his “Twinkie defense,” who was ultimately convicted of two counts of voluntary manslaughter. Santa Clara Magazine sat down with director Barbara Means Fraser, SCU associate professor, to talk about Emily Mann's riveting play.

SCM: Why do this play?
Fraser: It covers a very compelling part of Bay Area history-a key time in San Francisco, when the city was changing. In 1978, we were in the middle of the gay revolution. When Mayor Moscone was elected, someone who was so supportive of gay rights, it was huge. And Harvey Milk was the first openly gay elected official in the country. Dan White represented the old conservative San Francisco. It was a very different time. Remember Anita Bryant and the orange juice commercials? This was happening then; she was part of the crusade to repeal anti-discrimination legislation region by region. You could compare it to the gay marriage issue today.

It must be interesting to work on a play based on events that you lived through, but that happened before your students were born.
When I was working on “The Laramie Project” [produced at SCU in 2003], I was talking with students about San Francisco history. And I realized they only knew the name Moscone because of the conference center. It was a wake-up call to me. To them, the Castro has always been there, that's San Francisco. They just didn't know.

Does the play pose any special challenges?
The actors will play multiple roles. I like that; it has a docudrama style. In order to make it work, the play has to move fast. I like to write and direct this kind of theater. From telling the many different stories in different voices of the characters, you end up telling a bigger story overall.

How historically accurate is the play?
All of the words from Dan White, the character, are taken from actual things the real Dan White said. And a lot of the play's effectiveness comes from juxtaposing images and statements from the time. The character of Sister Boom Boom-she was one of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence-comes on stage, and then this is juxtaposed with an image of Dan White in church with his wife. The audience draws their own conclusions from making sense of the juxtapositions.

Is it difficult to make legal issues compelling on the stage?
It's fascinating to look at what can happen in the courts, to look at the injustices and inequality that can come out of them. Surrounding the play, we're going to have panel discussions and a seminar, with people from the law school discussing many of the issues the play raises. And, I really like to do work that involves social justice.

“Execution of Justice” runs Nov. 7-9 and 12-15 at the Louis B. Mayer Theatre.