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Tribute to Milk has deep resonance

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From page A6 | July 02, 2013 |

On Friday, my husband Walt and I attended a concert by the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus, called “Harvey Milk 2013.” The reason we had tickets was that our friend, singer/songwriter Steve Schalchlin, had written a number that was being performed. They offered him complimentary tickets, but since he’s in New York and couldn’t fly out, he offered them to us.

On our drive down to San Francisco, we heard that a California appeals court had lifted the ban on gay marriages (instead of waiting the expected 25 days) and that marriages were starting to be performed at San Francisco City Hall now. We listened to the first marriage ceremony, when Sandy Stier and Kristin Perry (one of the two couples which brought the action challenging Proposition 8) were married by California Attorney General Kamala Harris.

I listened to the ceremony with tears running down my cheeks. I don’t know either woman, but I remember the emotion surrounding the wedding of my friends Ellen Pontac and Shelly Bailes five years ago and I was just so happy that, after fighting so hard all these years, these two women were finally legally married.

I wish I could express adequately the emotion I felt sitting at the Nourse Theater in San Francisco on Gay Pride Eve, just after the first same-sex marriages had been conducted and celebrating the first openly gay man in the country to ever be elected to public office.

At the start of the program, two of the organizers said they knew that they would be celebrating Harvey Milk, a San Francisco County supervisor, on the 35th anniversary of his assassination, and on the 35th anniversary of the founding of the Gay Men’s Chorus, but there was no way when they planned this that they could have anticipated they also would be celebrating the wins in the Supreme Court and the weddings that were about to take place.

There was long, sustained applause and cheers that rolled through the auditorium and I suspect there were a lot of tears. My own cheeks were wet.

The show started with a recording Milk had made to be played only in the event of his assassination: “This is to be played only in the event of my death by assassination. I fully realize that a person who stands for what I stand for, an activist, a gay activist, becomes a target or the potential target for somebody who is insecure, terrified, afraid, or very disturbed themselves. Knowing that I could be assassinated at any moment, any time, I feel it’s important that some people know my thoughts …”

Milk had a premonition of what was inevitably to happen, but he probably would not have guessed that San Francisco Mayor George Moscone would be killed by Supervisor Dan White as well.

At intermission, Cleve Jones, who started the AIDS quilt so many years ago, said all he could think when he heard the news of Milk’s death was, “It’s over. It’s all over.” But later that night, as hundreds of people — and then thousands of people and then tens of thousands of people — marched from the Castro District to City Hall carrying candles, and as a small group of men got up and sang on the steps of City Hall — the first performance of the newly formed Gay Men’s Chorus — he thought “No … it’s not all over … it’s just beginning.”

And was it ever. Certainly, nobody 35 years ago could have predicted how far the gay community would come in its fight for equal rights, and definitely not the actions of the Supreme Court last week. Harvey Milk started it.

The concert was in two parts. Part 1, “I am the Legacy,” featured four musical numbers that were chosen from hundreds that had been submitted from all over the world from the “Post-Harvey generation” who are today benefiting from and living his legacy. Steve’s “I met a boy” was second and struck a nice balance between pathos and humor as three groups of men sang about meeting their partners in different decades and what a difference each decade had been. It received loud, sustained applause and appropriate laughter throughout the performance.

There was also an amazing dance number and a poignant song written by a young man about growing up gay in Altoona, Pa. (“I ask for the movement to continue, for the movement to grow, because last week I got a phone call from Altoona, Pennsylvania, and my election gave somebody else, one more person, hope. And after all, that’s what this is all about. It’s not about personal gain, not about ego, not about power — it’s about giving those young people out there in the Altoona, Pennsylvanias, hope. You gotta give them hope. — Harvey Milk)

Part 1 ended with a song called “Give Them Hope” with visuals by the chorus that are indescribable, but amazing. From the program: “The selected dance, video, art, original music and new choral pieces weave together a testimony of how Harvey Milk has changed the world for the better.” The technicians must have been working overtime because one of the video clips included video from the wedding that had taken place that afternoon!

Part 2 was the meat of the concert, a monumental song cycle by Andrew Lippa (who also played Harvey Milk in the piece) called “I am Harvey Milk.” It combined video, choral work, and solos by Lippa, by Noah Marlow — a kid with a great set of pipes and an impressive résumé for one so young, as the young Harvey Milk — and Laura Benanti as “Soprano.”

As an evening’s entertainment, it was emotionally exhausting and I cried more than once throughout. But then it was back out into the world again. We took a detour and went to look at City Hall, lit up in rainbow colors. My heart was full and so happy for all of the gay people in California and across the nation whose equality with heterosexual people has just been acknowledged by the Supreme Court and the Obama administration.

— Bev Sykes is a longtime Davis resident and theater critic for The Davis Enterprise.

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