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Remembering Harvey Milk
by Denny Meyer

A review of the musical play A Letter to Harvey Milk
playing through June 30th at the Acorn Theatre in NYC

I'm a pretty cynical grumpy old gay veteran, so I didn't expect much when I got tickets to this play.  As a gay rights writer, activist, and national spokesman, I occasionally get invitations to plays and shows in hopes that I might rave about them.  All I got was two complementary tickets with no strings attached; I don't owe these folks anything.  So, my raving, here, is of my own volition.  I loved it.

I served in the US Navy and Army Reserve for a total of ten years and left as a Sgt First Class; I don't cry much, but this show moved me to tears, simple as that.  The play's premise seemed a bit dubious: a retired old Kosher butcher gets lonely, missing his long deceased wife, and goes to his local Jewish Senior Center in San Francisco, looking for something to do.  He sees a bulletin board notice about a writing class even though, as he put it, he's "never written anything longer than a check."  The young teacher turns out to be quite inspiring and, after a few practice writing efforts, assigns him to 'write a letter to someone who meant something to him,' or something like that.  He decides to write 'A letter to Harvey Milk.'  So, how the hell did we arrive at that unlikely eventuality as the premise of a play?

Well as it turns out, he knew Harvey Milk before he was assassinated, they'd become friends.  I'm not going to tell you the whole story, its too good to spoil, see it yourself.  Its just a really clever story.  What got me gripped by the tale is the fact that I actually knew Harvey Milk back in the day.  Everyone did who was there in San Francisco at the time.  How did a straight old man become Milk's friend?  Well, I can tell you, Harvey had that affect on anyone he met.  He was both intensely charismatic and at the same time totally down to Earth and unassuming.  You could walk into his camera shop on Castro Street for a roll of film and spend the next two hours there absorbed in his political vision of a future of full equality.  Its just the way it was there back then. 

In the late 1970s in San Francisco, the gods of the gay revolution walked the Earth like ordinary mortals.  After spending time listening to Milk in his shop on a balmy Saturday afternoon, I could stroll up to Castro and 18th and end up standing there on the corner and chatting with Leonard Matlovich for another two hours.  When I got home four hours later and my lover asked, "Where the hell have you been?!," all I could say was that I was "waiting for Gedot."  I couldn't have said that I'd been chatting with gay gods; at that time we couldn't have imagined that they would become our most inspirational martyrs.

I lived there for some twenty years in the 1970s trough the 80s, through the Era of Harvey Milk and the horror of his assassination; and through the horror of the AIDS crises that horribly killed everyone I knew and loved.  So, the portrayal of the shooting of Harvey Milk and the candlelight vigil that followed, in which I participated, all in a memory flashback of the play's protagonist, an old retired Jewish Kosher butcher, well I suddenly burst into tears remembering the real candlelight march down Market Street.

But wait, there's more.  It turns out that the play's old protagonist is a Holocaust survivor and the play portrays his flashback memory of his time in Auschwitz.  Well, in fact, my parents were Holocaust Refugees to America whose families had been gassed in Auschwitz.  So all that is a part of my archetypal collective memory too.  So, the play pushed all of my buttons.

So, after my having said all that you might think that this play is to horribly sad to see.  In fact, its incredibly deliciously wonderfully clever.  First of all, every single word is sung; its an English language opera with great fully understandable enunciation.  Where could they find actors I never heard of who are such good singers?  The play is showing in New York City, the line for auditions must have been wrapped twice around the block.  Also, the play is chock full of Yiddish words and humor.  It helps to be be gay and Jewish (as Harvey Milk was) to get every line and joke; but its written cleverly enough for you to both come away thoroughly entertained and also a bit enlightened.  I liked it, last word.

Oh wait, I almost forgot: What has any of this got to do with advocacy for LGBT military veterans, the mission of this website?  Well, Harvey Milk was a gay veteran.  He was a LT in the US Navy during the Korean War.

Sgt Denny in theatre lobby wearing USNS Harvey Milk cap

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