Execution of Justice

Emily Mann
Southwark Playhouse

American playwright Emily Mann’s Execution of Justice recalls, through trial transcripts, interviews and reportage, the murder of San Francisco Liberal Mayor George Moscone and the first openly gay Supervisor Harvey Milk by co-supervisor and Irish Democrat Dan White. The play focuses around the central debate of the trial—whether White, who walked into City Hall in November 1978 with a loaded gun, engaged in premeditated murder or voluntary manslaughter.

In the context of a San Francisco with an increasingly vocal gay and ethnic community, Moscone’s appointment was a significant political shift, displacing power from the hands of Irish Democrats. In the face of a jury of white, straight conservatives, the verdict sided with White.

Written in the 1980s, Execution of Justice attempts not only to present a distilled version of the political and cultural discourses that were turbulent in San Francisco at the time of Moscone and Milk’s death, but also to investigate the issue of justice and prejudice. It explores the problematic relationship between religious values and the system of justice. Dan White sits at the centre of the traverse stage, a landmark that becomes the symbol of the quarrel in the trial itself.

The play itself presumes a significant amount of knowledge about the context in which Milk and Moscone were murdered; it doesn’t bring into question the strong response the city had to the trail and the murders, nor does it present any information about Moscone, Milk or the lead-up to the events. What is intriguing about the White murders is the public and symbolic nature of his actions that caused a stir of social and political turbulences between a dominant religious community and a growing and complex group of minorities. (Gus Van Sant’s biopic Milk focuses on the events leading up to the murders, whilst the documentary The Times of Harvey Milk explores the wider context of the murders and the riots that followed soon after).

As an American play staged in the UK, this lack of context feels like a significant dramaturgical gap which means the production never settles into a discursive argument; the depth with which White’s possible motivations are dissected doesn’t have an effect without a dramatic counterpart.

Execution of Justice is a play whose significance lies in both its historical gesture and its interest in preserving these events in a wider cultural and social memory. Bennathan’s production doesn’t complete its gesture. The play feels resolutely American in tone and scope, and without context there is limited investment in its underlying discussion on prejudice that audiences can invest.

The production pays homage to the original play without much effort to contextualize and investigate with renewed interest the issues at the heart of the 1978 murders; if at times it manages to build moments of potent theatricality, there’s a flatness that stems from its reliance on the inherent meaning of the events themselves. Execution of Justice doesn’t translate well in a political landscape that hasn’t appropriated these events in their specificity, but their wider consequences. The issue of political representation, of the voices of minorities and the political language that allows for change are highly pertinent, but without any proper context, are lost in a homogenized debate.

Reviewer: Diana Damian

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