NEW YORK — Dustin Lance Black sat in court and couldn't believe what he was seeing.
The Academy Award-winning screenwriter, who is a board member of the American Foundation for Equal Rights, was in federal court in San Francisco last year hoping a judge would overturn California's gay marriage ban known as Proposition 8.
What he watched was revelatory: Former U.S. Solicitor General Theodore Olson had teamed with David Boies — best known as adversaries who represented opposing sides in the disputed 2000 presidential election — to put on a powerfully clear argument in favor of gay marriage.
"This was the first time I've ever seen our case argued by the most capable lawyers in the world, in a court of law where the other side had to raise their right hand and swear to tell the truth," Black says. "That is where, I think, for the first time, we in the gay and lesbian movement found sanity in the debate about who we are."
There was only one problem — few people could see the trial. Proposition 8 backers had succeeded in getting the U.S. Supreme Court to bar broadcast of the trial. Only a transcript would be available.
"It killed me to think that this would only live inside this courtroom for the dozens to see and not the country to see," Black says. "It killed me and I think it killed all of us in the room. We immediately started trying to figure out, 'How do we get this truth out there?"
The answer will be seen next week when Black unveils the play "8," based on what happened at the trial. A one-night-only staged reading on Broadway has already attracted an all-star cast including Morgan Freeman, Anthony Edwards, John Lithgow, Christine Lahti, Rob Reiner, Larry Kramer and Marisa Tomei.
"We're very lucky that we were able to assemble actors that can amplify and show what actually happened in that courtroom," says Chad Griffin, president of the foundation. "It's made for the stage."
Getting a role in the play has added emotional significance for Cheyenne Jackson, the "30 Rock" and Broadway star. He was cast as one of the plaintiffs before getting married this summer to his longtime partner Monte Lapka.
"It's kind of a strange, great, full-circle thing that '8' is happening," says Jackson. Black, he says, "can make the driest of court transcripts really come to life."
The 90-minute play will be directed by Joe Mantello and is based on transcripts that are augmented by interviews with participants on both sides and firsthand observations. Black, who attended the trial every day, began work on the play even before Chief U.S. District Judge Vaughn Walker ruled that Prop 8 was unconstitutional.
"I wanted to make it fair. I wanted to bring both sides' best argument," says Black, who also wrote the screenplay for "Milk," the film about the life of gay rights activist and politician Harvey Milk. "If anything, I think it's overly fair to the opposition."
The National Organization for Marriage, which backs Proposition 8 and other measures to forbid same-sex marriage nationwide, declined to comment. Protect Marriage, a coalition of religious and conservative groups, also declined comment, saying through spokeswoman Carla Hass that it is solely focused on appealing the case.
At the reading Monday at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre, Freeman will play Boise and Lithgow will play Olson. The other actors will play various plaintiffs, witnesses and experts. While the cast is all personally pro-gay marriage and Broadway is very gay friendly, some celebs will have to portray the other side.
Bradley Whitford even anticipates some boos: He'll be playing Charles Cooper, the chief attorney for the anti-gay marriage side. "My goal in a situation like this is to be as clear, as articulate, as well-intentioned and with as little mustache-twirling as possible," says the former "West Wing" star.
Reiner also is prepared for hissing. He'll be playing David Blankenhorn, president of the Institute for American Values, who was one of two witnesses called by the opponents of gay marriage. Luckily, Reiner was in court to see Blankenhorn testify, which will inform his portrait.
"If the world sees what happens in this trial, they'll realize that the other side simply had no case," says Reiner. "They presented no evidence and the witnesses that they did present — the two that they did — made our case for us."
Another participant, former CNN anchor Campbell Brown, won't have to stretch too much. She's been asked to play a broadcast journalist who helps frame the court case. "Never in a million years did I ever think that this would happen," she says. "It sounded like such a fun night, it's for a great cause that I strongly support, and so I was thrilled to be a part of it."
Kramer, the playwright and gay-rights activist, reached out to Mantello for a part in the reading of "8'' as soon as he heard about it. Kramer, whose long-awaited book "The American People" is to come out next year, adds: "I just think it's so important that we know our history — the history of how badly we're treated and how hard we have to fight to get what we deserve, which is equality."
The American Foundation for Equal Rights and fellow producer Broadway Impact, a gay-rights group, will license "8'' to schools and community organizations nationwide in order to spur action, dialogue and understanding. Dozens, it says, have so far asked to stage their own productions.
"I believe that this is something we're going to be telling our children about. I believe this is the Brown v. Board of Education of our civil rights movement," says Rory O'Malley, who stars in "The Book of Mormon" and is a co-founder of Broadway Impact.
O'Malley was also in the courtroom every day and says watching Olson — who was nominated by former President George W. Bush — give his side's final arguments was "one of the profound and amazing experiences of my life. It's like watching Atticus Finch in 'To Kill a Mockingbird.'"Comment on this story
The pro-gay marriage side, which vows to take their fight to the U.S. Supreme Court, says they hope "8'' will increase awareness of their plight in the same way the Laramie Project did for hate crimes or "The Vagina Monologues" did for domestic violence.
"I truly believe that this is the case for marriage equality that can be articulated across the country," O'Malley says. "We're just getting started. It's going to be a very powerful night, but it's just one night. We need to have this spoken in universities and theaters."
Play site: http://www.afer.org/broadway8
Broadway Impact: http://www.broadwayimpact.com
National Organization for Marriage: http://www.nationformarriage.org
Mark Kennedy can be reached at http://twitter.com/KennedyTwits