Interview with Jonathan Moscone

Deborah Cullinan: We’re in my office in San Francisco, California. Jon Moscone, I am really glad to interview you and we’re going to talk about the Ghost Light project, right? So, tell me where this story comes from?

Jon Moscone: You’d think after having moved back to the Bay Area  to work with Cal Shakes a decade ago it would be part of my agenda to connect my past to my work, when it fact, that hasn’t been the case at all. And one of the reasons I didn’t want to take the job of running Cal Shakes in the Bay Area was because I thought the name would garner attention undeservingly and not in any way in relation to myself as a theater maker.

Deborah: The Moscone name.

Jon: The Moscone name.

Deborah: The Moscone name is a big name to be carrying around.

Jon: It is a big name to carry around. The longer I live here, the more the name actually seems to mean. I wonder if the distance of time plays a part in that. Maybe having Obama in office makes one think about hopeful times, and there’s something that surfaces, locally, with regards to the 70s in San Francisco, and maybe that’s why the name has more vitality now.

Deborah: If I’m not from San Francisco, and I don’t know the Moscone name, what is the name? Who was your dad?

Jon: He was a street kid who went to law school and became a community activist and was able to galvanize the community around the panhandle freeway project in the early 60s. He was part of a group of very progressive and politically-minded lawyers who flew to Alabama to help get out the vote and break down any injustice that was keeping blacks from voting. His best friend, John Burton, and Burton’s older brother, who was a congressman, called a meeting one day to tell him they had decided he should become a politician, and he became one.

Deborah: How old was he?

Jon: He was in his early thirties, and he was closely allied with Kennedy and he was the local guy for the Kennedy ticket. Eventually he became a member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. Then he ran for State Senate of California and won and had a lot of national leadership behind him. A month into his term as state senator, he was appointed the head of the senate, and ran the senate for ten years. A month into the job.

Deborah: Unprecedented—

Jon: —unprecedented, and in that time he combined a genuine sense of progressive politics when they were nascent in California and a great intellect and great looks and great charm.

Deborah: Beautiful combination.

Jon: Yeah, he had the combo. He had the style and the substance. And I think it had to do with the fact that he came from the streets and that he was a great basketball player. It gave him such great physical confidence, which is something that you have to have as a political leader. He spearheaded the first gay rights legislation in the country (to decriminalize sodomy) and legislation to legalize marijuana.

Deborah: So, he did ten years leading the senate.

Jon: He did, and there’s a story from the play about the repeal of the sodomy law that he achieved by calling the vote really late at night. It was a dead tie and what he did was he had the chambers locked.

Deborah: They couldn’t leave—

Jon: —and he called them to negotiate and that’s how they broke the tie.

Deborah: Wow. So he was someone who could get things done.

Jon: Yeah. He knew how to get things done. He knew how to make something happen.

Deborah: Something you have in common.

Jon: That’s interesting. Yeah, I think you’re right. I think I do have that in common with him and it’s a little harder to do that now. If we’re not changing things while we’re here, I do not need to be on this planet. If we’re not here to get things done, they’re going to be done for us or to us. I would rather be one of the people who can act, than is acted upon.

Deborah: Certainly a legacy. So then your dad became mayor.

Jon: And it was a short time before he was killed in office. It was only two years, two and a half years from the beginning of  ‘76 to near the end of ‘78. But he was quick to enact a cultural shift in City Hall, which became known for opening doors to members of the community. He promised in his mayoral campaign that, if elected, City Hall would reflect the communities that make up San Francisco. I heard him say that in an interview on his first day in office, that if city hall isn’t made up the communities then it can’t fight for the communities. San Francisco has always been eclectic and diverse, but it had never been empowered along those lines before George was in office.

Deborah: So we know that your father was killed in office, in his office.

Jon: Yes, for those that don’t know you can always watch the movie Milk, but if you go get popcorn you may miss the one-minute part of the story when my dad gets killed. And the way I’m telling this is a glimpse into the reason why I chose to do Ghost Light. My dad was killed in his office by Dan White who was a Supervisor who enacted District Elections, which my dad supported. And you can see the legacy of it today for good and bad in San Francisco.

Dan White had quit and my dad moved very quickly to replace him with somebody who was going to tip the board towards enacting his policies. He came to ask for his job back, my dad told him he couldn’t get his job back, and Dan White shot him. Killed him. And then went down the hall and shot Harvey Milk, who was the first openly gay elected politician in the country. Then the city kind of exploded, and then it imploded, and then it kind of died for me, and then it came back to new life.

Deborah: How old were you Jon?

Jon: Fourteen. A month after fourteen. My brother was sixteen. We were both called out of lunch at St. Ignatius College Prep and told that there had been a shooting at the office and my mom wanted us home. And that was it. The fire chief picked us up and drove us home. And my brother and I sat in the back seat of the fire chief’s car. Our house in Saint Francis Woods had a front gate and it was closed and there were reporters everywhere trying to get in and take pictures. We were carried in above or through the gate, my brother was walked in, I was carried, but I was a little smaller. We went in to the family room, and my brother was taken to another room and I was sat down and told.

Deborah: Jon, what sparked you to think about making this play, Ghost Light, at this point in your life?

Jon: Well, my family to varying to degrees, and close friends of my father have been saddened and, at some points, angered by the diminishment of my father’s legacy. At the same time, the image of Harvey Milk as a gay leader grows—which, in my opinion, also diminishes Harvey’s broad contributions. It’s happened in benign ways, never in malicious ways, but I think feeling powerless in this started to eat away at me.

Deborah: Why theater? Why did you choose theater in particular?

Jon: Because this is my platform. This is what I know. I did give a speech once in the late 90s that was a 20th anniversary speech of their assassinations. I got up and gave a ten-minute speech and in that speech I talked about being gay. And it was on the front page of the Chronicle that I had come out, which I hadn’t really thought I was doing. Because I had already come out. So I went on the speaking circuit and talk radio and spoke at PFLAG conventions and thought, “I’m going to promote the legacy of my father and become ‘The Gay Son of the Slain Mayor,’” and then I realized I was being absorbed into Harvey’s story because I am gay. Once I made that connection, once I realized what was going on, I pulled away and thought, “no no no.”

Deborah: That is not your dad’s story.

Jon: No.

Deborah: And it’s not yours.

Jon: No! I was on a track that the only way to bring my father’s story back to life was because I was gay and I thought, “no no no, that’s not it,” and you realize that your story is only interesting in terms of how it reflects on how other people need to see the world. But in art you can actually shape something in a creative way that goes underneath what people think they want or need.

You don’t take polls, you don’t ask people what they want to see and then do it. You do it and you hope that because it’s an authentic reflection of who you really are and what matters to you, it is going to awaken something in somebody else. And they say, “god it’s amazing, that play spoke to me.” Yet if I had asked them if they would like to see this play, or what kind of play they would like to see, they wouldn’t know the answer. And then you make something and it goes into someone’s heart and mind and it is relevant because it’s relevant to you.

Deborah: Right. So what did you make? How would you describe it?

Jon: I did not make Moscone. That was very clear, in my head, that I did not want to do that. So I thought let’s not talk about historically depicting what happened. Let’s talk about what it means to lose somebody and to lose him against the public backdrop. Losing someone so big against a backdrop so big from the mind and body of someone so small and that felt like a story.

Deborah: That’s beautiful.

Jon: And Bill Rauch was talking about his American Revolution cycle, about moments of significant change in American history, and I said, “Would you be interested in this story?” And he said yes immediately. Just to make sure, I said it’s not going to be a bio story about George, it’s not going to be a gay rights play. It’s going to be whatever it’s going to be, and he said. “That’s wonderful.” And then I decided a week or so later to call Tony Taccone.

Deborah: Yeah. You were speaking to people who could speak for you on some level, right?

Jon: I think that inherent in that process is letting go of the outcome, and I was letting go of the outcome. I kept saying I didn’t want this to be “I Lost My Father Part I, intermission,” and working with Tony was a way of doing that. At the same time, there was a part of me that did want it to be that. Wanted it to be…all the images that have been in my head for years and years about this. So obviously there is part of the story that is still within me. This isn’t the final telling, this is the first telling.

Deborah: And this first telling is in Ashland?

Jon: Yes, Oregon.

Deborah: Is it coming to San Francisco?

Jon: It is. It’s coming to Berkeley.

Deborah: And how do you feel about that?

Jon: Terrified.

Deborah: And what’s most terrifying about that?

Jon: Because I live in the Bay Area, where when you get a great review all your friends tell you how great you are, and your mom tells you how much she loves you, and everyone’s super proud of you. And as much as people hate this little leaping man that we have, if he’s leaping he’s everywhere.

If we’re not changing things while we’re here, I do not need to be on this planet. If we’re not here to get things done, they’re going to be done for us or to us. I would rather be one of the people who can act, than is acted upon.

Deborah: It’s a personal story—

Jon: —yeah, so it’s reviewing me. You’re always feeling reviewed no matter what. When it’s a show that’s a classic and they’re like, “Oh, the production was great but the play’s not that good,” you still feel responsible as the director because you think, “Oh, actually the play’s great, I must have not brought that out.”

Deborah: So, if the movie everyone saw is called Milk and the history books are not telling the story of your dad and on some level that’s what motivated you to do Ghost Light, and then on another level, you come to the realization that that can’t really be entirely what it is.

Jon: Yeah. There are two things going on with this project for me: one is I’m owning a part of myself that I’ve never owned, which is that my story can be artistic, not someone else’s story that I interpreted. My story. My past. My internal life. The second one is: people who have seen the play have been writing me about my dad and thanking me for giving voice to the story. George spends all of three minutes on stage, and it’s the fact that he only spent three minutes on stage that made people so grateful that he came back. Because it was about admitting that he’s not here anymore and that’s what I love about the play. The play doesn’t force him back into life, the play wishes he’d come back to life. And that’s what Tony caught. He caught the pain in missing him. He didn’t try to pretend that he was here.

Deborah: The play wishes him back to life, and I know that your brother saw the play and some of your friends, your San Francisco friends, and your mom came, so what did it mean for them and what did that mean for you as the artist?

Jon: She came. Everything I thought she would do, which was divorce herself from the experience, try to pretend it wasn’t happening, she didn’t do. She was so proud that it happened. And she came and I sat next to her. She cried a lot, she laughed a lot… In the scene of the reenactment where the one character reenacts the killing—

Deborah: —because we haven’t actually talked about this. In the play there is a director who is directing—why don’t you tell us…

Jon: In Ghost Light, there’s a character who is a film director of a movie that was supposed to be about George Moscone but ends up being about Harvey Milk. The character of Jon screams at the film director, “The memory of my father has been languishing for years!” and the film director says, “No, honey, your father’s memory is just fine. It’s you who’s been languishing.” And it’s true. And really the story is about an individual who cannot grieve and chooses not to grieve, who is a hypercritical, hyperanalytical, hyperactive maker of other people’s stories. So my mom came to see it and she cried. I had to hold her tight when the gunshots rang out. And she jumped and she jumped, and I held her really hard, “There’s three, there’s two, there’s one more. There’s no more.” She loved the play. She loved it.

a little boy on screen
Ghost Light

Deborah: I would love to hear how this experience relates to who you are as an individual artist and what your vision for theater is now.

Jon: I think the best way I can answer is once you break down certain walls: economic walls, physical walls, geographic walls, cultural walls, the possibilities are open. You can have relationships with anyone you want who turns you on and has great ideas and literally makes you excited about what you do.

Deborah: You decided that you were compelled to make a project that is your story and that your story is artistic. What happens now?

Jon: Okay. Here’s the thing. Now I did the play about my dad and me. I now no longer can hide behind the fact that I haven’t done that, so in a way I’ve eradicated a wall inside me. Once you eradicate a wall you have something else to look at and you have other questions to ask. And in a way, what we do, actually the job of theater, is to imagine the ways walls can come down. And some of us look at those walls very literally, there are some real walls out there. But some of them are imagined walls. When you’re making a play you’re using your conscious brain to get to the unconscious and that’s how you break down the walls. And my job is finding those walls, right? And I think that doing this play gets rid of another wall.

Doing this play I’ve become more adventurous. Fuck it, I’ve completely exposed myself. So I’m pretty much out there, which is cool. So now I’m going to start doing other stuff. I’m going to try things out. I make things happen. I bring people into a room, whatever that room is. How we bring those people in is going to change and who those people are is going to change and how things are made with me is going to change. We’re just going to start figuring that out.

Deborah: So I’m going to wind us down now. I just want to circle back to your dad because it has been really beautiful to hear you talk about him. You were fourteen and now you’re…

Jon: Forty-six.

Deborah: From what I hear that was a moment in time that stopped for you. And in some ways you need to leave that moment there in a series of images and now you’ve come to Ghost Light and it is the beginning. It is your personal story but it is actually a story that is as valid as any other play, any other story. You’ve come to the realization that your story is art.

Jon: At the first preview of this play, my first reaction was thank god it didn’t suck. Everyone stood up at the end and applauded, and there was a woman sitting next to me and she was just sobbing, and I turned to her, and I felt like I should say something like, “Are you ok?” and she looked at me and she said, “My mayor came back…just for a couple minutes I saw my mayor.” That’s magnificent.

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There were 3 pivotal moments in the 1970's that gave the gay rights movement... MOVEMENT. The first was the election of George Moscone as Mayor in 1975. Up until that happened, S.F. was a conservative city. The first person appointed in his administration was Harvey Milk, to the Board of Permits. Moscone was a friend to all segments of the S.F. gay communities. He showed up for fund raisers, gay sporting events and the Gay Businessmen Association before and during his years as Mayor. 2nd Was Anita Bryant. She helped bring the diverse gay community together with her Christian Right Wing anti-gay programs., especially in San Francisco. #3, was Harvey who ran several times for public office before being elected Supervisor of the 5th District in November of 1977, and America's first openly gay male politician from a major city. I knew both Harvey and Moscone as friends. I always felt after the assassinations, that too many gays seemed to have forgotten just how much of a friend Mayor Moscone was to the GLBT community. When they began to promote the idea of a Harvey Milk Day Holiday, I thought it should of included Moscone's name. I'm glad that Jonathan was old enough to remember his Dad, and to write this great, and timely play.

You are both inspiring. Thanks for sharing, being courageous and candid, and breaking down your walls. I for one am pretty psyched that it will be coming to Berkeley and that I get to cheer your accomplishments.

Kudos, Emily

I never tire of hearing the story of the woman who says she got her mayor back...really hope I can see the next incarnation in San Francisco - it was a moving experience on so many levels - really a tribute to human concern and care - from the writing to the theaters who supported it - to the people who lived and shared it....

Thanks so much, Jonathan and Deb, for eradicating the walls and allowing us access to such direct insight and pathos to what is so deeply personal ... and now universal. A well of emotional recognition has been unlocked in me as a result of this divine HOWL contribution. And even though I cannot claim resonances to the facts surrounding GHOSTLIGHT, I humbly claim for myself the healing benefits of Jonathan's willingness to so completely reveal the depths of his personal legacy. Bravo all around, and I will make every effort to get to GHOSTLIGHT at one of its western locales.

Thank you for this excellent interview. Sometimes there is a connection between the interviewer and interviewee that leaps off the page. This is one. Inspiring.

HowlRound is my favorite blog. It makes me fall in love with the theatre all over again. And again. And again.

That's a lovely interview.

I'm grateful to Jonathan for his candor and courage, to Deb for her thoughtful curiosity, and to you both for the metaphor of walls, on the inside and outside, so clearly articulated.

Can't wait to see the show at Berkeley.