A Son Confronts Moscone's 'Ghost' On Stage

Sep 3, 2011
Originally published on September 4, 2011 9:38 am

As the artistic director of the California Shakespeare Theater, Jonathan Moscone has told a lot of stories on stage but never his own father's — until now.

Moscone was 14 when his father, San Francisco Mayor George Moscone, was murdered.

For decades, the younger Moscone saw a legend grow up around city supervisor Harvey Milk, who was also gunned down that day. Milk became a gay rights icon, and his story became the subject of plays, documentaries and films. Moscone's story, however, remained largely untold.

While visiting the set of director Gus Van Sant's 2008 bio-pic Milk, Jonathan Moscone decided to change that. It happened when he saw actor Victor Garber, who played his father in the film, mess up one of his lines.

"And Gus Van Sant said, 'Don't worry, this is just a montage,'" Moscone tells weekends on All Things Considered guest host Laura Sullivan.

Moscone wondered what he could do that wouldn't make his father's story "part of a montage in the life of somebody else's story."

He soon decided to create his own play. Ghost Light is a play-within-a-play, in which the lead character, Jon, deals with the death of his father while staging a version of Hamlet.

Moscone says it was through playwright Tony Taccone's words that he was finally able to confront the feelings that had remained "suppressed under the cloak of mourning and loss."

"And now that those have been uncloaked," he says, "I feel like things are in the room where things used to be in the closet. And I guess that's a good thing."

Ghost Light is playing at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival through Nov. 5.

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LAURA SULLIVAN, host: Theater director Jonathan Moscone has told a lot of stories on stage, but never until now his dad's. See, Jonathan was 14 years old when his father, San Francisco Mayor George Moscone, was murdered. And for decades, Jonathan saw a legend grow up around the other man that was gunned down that day, City Supervisor Harvey Milk. But it wasn't until he was on the set of Gus Van Sant's movie "Milk" that Jonathan decided to tell his dad's story. It's the subject of his new play, "Ghost Light." That day on the movie set, the actor playing his father flubbed a line.

JONATHAN MOSCONE: And Gus Van Sant said: Don't worry. This is just a montage.

SULLIVAN: That stopped Jonathan Moscone and made him really think.

MOSCONE: What can I do that doesn't make my father's story a part of a montage in the life of somebody else's story?

SULLIVAN: You were so young. You were just 14 years old when your father was murdered. Do you remember that day?

MOSCONE: Yeah. It's - I remember everything that led up to being told that he had been killed. And the way I heard it is an exact line in the play, and the wording of the line is exactly the wording of the way I was told: Your father was, comma, your father was killed. It was just the repeat. Your father was, your father was killed. And, you know, it's not poetry, but that comma always stands out. And my thinking, when anyone tells me something and they say, your blank, comma, your, and they repeat, I start to freak out a little bit, like, what are they going to tell me? You know, you become almost Pavlovian.

SULLIVAN: When was the first time that you felt that your father's death had in many ways been overshadowed by Harvey Milk's death?

MOSCONE: I don't know if I could remember the first time, but very early on, even in the '80s when I lived in New York, you know, Harvey started to become a very strong symbol for the civil rights of gays and lesbians, bisexuals and transgender. And his nephew Stuart has been an extraordinary advocate for his legacy as a Martin Luther King for that community. And it's not entirely, you know, true to Harvey's life because, you know, Harvey was a, you know, his own person. He wasn't a martyr, and yet he's become one.

And so I started to understand it as a kind of what's the story that people needed to hear for them to have something to fight for. And then there was nobody doing that for George because George was a straight man, and George didn't have a story.

SULLIVAN: There's a scene in the play that gets into this. Let's listen to it.


CHRISTOPHER LIAM MOORE: (as Jon) Trust me. Without George Moscone, Harvey Milk is still managing a photo shop in the Castro trying to get people to pick up their dog's (bleep) on the sidewalk. You know, he should be an asterisk in George Moscone's bio. Woo, I think I might be cracking up.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (as Character) Have you...

MOORE: I hate Harvey Milk. I swear. I (bleep) hate Harvey Milk.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: You do not hate Harvey Milk.

MOORE: Of course, I don't hate Harvey Milk.

SULLIVAN: Harvey Milk is such a cultural icon and hero to so many people, but it sounds like there's a lot of mixed emotions there.

MOSCONE: Yeah. Let it be said also that when that scene plays in front of an audience, it is received with enormous amounts of laughter. You know, because laughter can mean so many things, and I think the first definition of the laughter in that moment is identification of feeling a powerless kid who just lashes out. And, of course, he doesn't hate Harvey Milk. Of course, I don't hate Harvey Milk. Why would I? He was a great man. But you can tend to start saying things like that because you feel that your father has been left in the shadows.

SULLIVAN: Jon, this is a play within a play - you're actually a character in it - and your character is a director dealing with the death of his father. It worked out for your character by the end of the play. Did - has it worked out for you as well?

MOSCONE: I would be lying if I said that it was a catharsis for me and that I am all fine and good now. I mean, I'm fine and good in the sense that I run a theater, I have a good life, I have great friends and my family's still here, but there are a lot of things that need to be dealt with that I've been able to suppress under the cloak of mourning and loss. And now that those have been uncloaked, it's not tumultuous right now, but it's - I feel like things are in the room where things used to be in the closet. And I guess that's a good thing.

SULLIVAN: That's Jonathan Moscone. His play "Ghost Light" about his father's murder and the fallout in his life is at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival through November 5th. Jonathan, thanks so much for being here.

MOSCONE: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.