Thirty-three years ago, the assassinations of San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone sent shock waves throughout the city and devastated the two men's families. Jonathan Moscone, Mayor Moscone’s son, was 14-years-old at that time.
The young Moscone struggled to move on after his father’s death. As an adult, he became involved with the arts and eventually became the artistic director of the California Shakespeare Theater. While his productions of Twelfth Night and Nicholas Nickleby have been well received over the last decade, Moscone had another story to tell, one he had avoided most of his life – the story of his father's death. That event has been adapted into a play called Ghost Light that is currently playing at the Berkeley Repertory Theater. KALW’s Artjoms Konohovs has the story behind the story.
Ghost Light is the story of a father and son. According to Jonathan Moscone, it's also about the legacy of a man who made a difference in San Francisco. “For those who knew this city before George was mayor, San Francisco was not a progressively led city and that has changed dramatically,” says Moscone. “That remains my father’s legacy and, whether we feel it strongly or not, it’s in the air.”
First-time playwright Tony Taccone wrote the story, which is at once personal, political, and provocative. “[George Moscone] was about bringing voices to the table who hadn’t been there before. He was about giving agency, respect, and power to as many different people as there are. And I think he did that in an astonishingly successful and controversial way,” says Taccone.
As mayor, George Moscone appointed several women to positions in City Hall at a time when that practice was rare. He did the same for underrepresented minority groups.
Jonathan Moscone says his father's activism made him a polarizing figure. “There were as many people who liked him as those who did not like him. There were occasional bomb threats. None of them were real, but they were there. And you would get stopped at the streets and people were very vocal in San Francisco,” Moscone remembers. “They would yell at my dad and my dad would yell right back at them. He certainly was not afraid of many people.”
While Ghost Light is based on certain historical facts, it's what Moscone considers to be a “dream” play. “What the play does is that it actually brings the memory into the present – and it lets the presence of someone who has been forgotten back into the room,” Moscone explains, adding that the play “makes the adult son able to live in the present.”
For the first time in his life, Jonathan Moscone wanted to tell his own version of his father’s assassination. Over the course of several interviews with Taccone, he shared childhood memories and feelings that he had previously kept to himself. Those interviews, along with stories from other family members, form the basis of Ghost Light.
Taccone emphasizes that he didn't do many other interviews because he didn’t want to be obligated to tell other people’s stories. “I did some cursory research, mostly about Jon and about some historical aspects of the event, but I really wanted to be free to write a fully, almost romantically imagined play.”
Taccone also says he was fascinated by how the legend of a public figure can be so different from a family's personal experience. He recalled a story he heard from Jonathan Moscone’s mother about a man who approached her at a party and said he had gone to college with George Moscone and claimed they were close friends.
In reality, George Moscone had not attended the college the man named. Taccone says Jonathan Moscone's mother let it go. “She decided it was better to let this guy believe in his own mythology about what's happened than try to fight it.” Stories like this one informed Taccone’s process. “As a writer, I became aware that that's what they as a family are up against,” he explains.
Jonathan Moscone says reading Taccone's final script left him feeling vulnerable. Even now, after the play completed a four-month run at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, performances still leave him emotional. “You do kind of have a bit of terror running through your veins at any given moment. Every night I watch the show, I always sit next to someone who recognizes me. And they kind of hold my hand because they know I’m scared,” Moscone recounts. Often times, these outstretched hands belong to ushers in the theater.
Ghost Light is more than a somber memory. The audience can find humor in the reflections on what it was like to have a famous father. Ultimately, though, the play is about settling with the past.
“At the end of the day, he was my father and he is gone,” Moscone said in a press conference. “And he lives only through me and my family. If I'm not carrying that on, if I'm not owning this in a positive way, then I'm languishing.”
Ghost Light is a meditation – a different way of considering a public figure many Bay Area residents thought they knew. It offers new insights that only become available when a man honestly shares his deepest feelings.
Ghost Light is playing at the Berkeley Repertory Theater through February 19, 2012.