Legacy of S.F. Mayor, Killed With Harvey Milk, Revived on Stage by Son

February 8, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
In his new play "Ghost Light," Jonathon Moscone explores feelings of guilt and grief as well as the legacy of his father, San Francisco Mayor George Moscone, who was gunned down at City Hall 33 years ago, along with gay rights advocate Harvey Milk, whose assassination has been better-remembered. KQED's Dave Iverson reports.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally tonight, a son brings his father’s story to the stage.

The play is about the life, the legacy and the memories of San Francisco Mayor George Moscone, who was gunned down at City Hall 33 years ago.

Special correspondent Dave Iverson of KQED San Francisco reports.

JONATHAN MOSCONE, director, “Ghost Light”: Okay, so I’ll give you just the cue line.

DAVID IVERSON: It’s the first week of rehearsal for a new play.

JONATHAN MOSCONE: Yes. That’s going to be good.

DAVID IVERSON: At the Berkeley Repertory Theatre, the legacy of Mayor George Moscone is being re-imagined in the most personal way.

ACTOR: Assassination tends to put a damper on table talk.

DAVID IVERSON: The play is called “Ghost Light,” and it’s directed by Jonathan Moscone, the late mayor’s youngest son.

JONATHAN MOSCONE, director, “Ghost Light”: I just wanted to explore what it means to lose somebody. I lost my dad when my back was turned. I didn’t even see him die. I didn’t see it happen. It’s obviously a piece of me that hasn’t been put together.

DAVID IVERSON: Jonathan Moscone was 11 years old in 1975, when his father George was elected mayor. It was a time of change in San Francisco, including a new wave of gay and lesbian residents.

The new mayor embraced the new San Francisco, appointing a gay rights activist named Harvey Milk to a city board.

GEORGE MOSCONE, mayor of San Francisco: Gay support is a campaign asset in any campaign. People look for it. People try to exhibit a platform of fairness, so that they can warrant the support of the gay community. And I would hope we’d get at least a lion’s share of it or a fair share.

JONATHAN MOSCONE: My dad loved his job so much. And he loved being the mayor. And he just took it — he took it as the greatest gift he could ever have received.

DAVID IVERSON: In November 1978, George Moscone was completing his third year in office. And then, on Nov. 27, shots rang out at City Hall. Amid chaos and confusion, the then president of the city’s Board of Supervisors, Dianne Feinstein, stepped to the microphone.

DIANNE FEINSTEIN, San Francisco Board of Supervisors: As president of the Board of Supervisors, it’s my duty to make this announcement. Both Mayor Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk have been shot and killed.

MAN: Oh, Jesus Christ!

MAN: Quiet!

DIANNE FEINSTEIN: The suspect is Supervisor Dan White.

DAVID IVERSON: For a city and 14-year-old Jon Moscone, the world was turned upside-down.

JONATHAN MOSCONE: I only remember like picture frames of the day. Someone sat me down on the couch. It was my mom’s best friend. And she told me that my dad had been killed. And — and then I don’t remember much after that.

WOMAN (singing): Amazing grace, how sweet the sound.

JONATHAN MOSCONE: Whenever I remember you in my prayers, as indeed I do constantly night and day, recalling your tears when we parted, I yearn to see you again.

TONY TACCONE, writer, “Ghost Light”: He said, the world went silent. The world went completely silent for a very long time.

DAVID IVERSON: Tony Taccone is the artistic director at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre. He’s known Jon Moscone for over 20 years. They’re fast friends, but the topic of Jon’s father was always off-limits.

TONY TACCONE: So, when he took me out to the bar and plied me with alcohol sufficiently enough to sort of, you know, loosen up his tongue, if not mine, and then suggested to me that he was ready to do a piece about his dad, I fell off the bar stool, practically.

DAVID IVERSON: And there was another motivating factor.

SEAN PENN, actor (in character): My name is Harvey Milk, and I’m here to recruit you.

DAVID IVERSON: The movie “Milk” celebrated Harvey Milk’s contributions to gay rights, but barely mentioned the mayor who had given Milk his first city position.

For Jon Moscone, who is gay himself, the movie only told part of the story.

JONATHAN MOSCONE: And that kind of — to be quite honest, kind of pissed me off.

TONY TACCONE: One of the main reasons that Jon wants to do this piece is to — is to liberate his father’s memory.

DAVID IVERSON: The movie “Milk” may have jump-started the playwriting process, a process we documented over time, but the memories that soon emerged were far more personal than political.

JONATHAN MOSCONE: I remember, the day he — the day he died, you know, I wasn’t feeling well.

I could tell he was concerned about just making sure that I was okay. And he had maybe thought he was going to stay home with me for awhile or — maybe — no, no, it was bring me to the doctor. He said, “Should I take you to the doctor?” That’s what it was.

TONY TACCONE: And you said no?


TONY TACCONE: So — so if you had said yes . . .


TONY TACCONE: There were definitely aha moments. Certainly, when Jon mentioned the fact that he was sick the day his father was killed, and — and he didn’t talk about guilt about it or anything like that. He didn’t mention it. But I thought, that’s dramatic gold.

DAVID IVERSON: Taccone started writing, creating a semi-autobiographical story about a character named Jon who goes through life blocking out the pain of the past.

DIANNE FEINSTEIN: As president of the Board of Supervisors, it is my duty to make this announcement.

DAVID IVERSON: The play begins with a dream sequence. Jon is once again 14.

ACTOR: You were sick that day, the day he was killed. Did you feel responsible in any way for his going to work that day?


ACTOR: Can you hear that?

DAVID IVERSON: In the play, a boy who feels responsible for his father’s death grows up to be a man who can’t face the past or even talk about his dad.

ACTOR: You try to talk. It doesn’t come out right. No one gets it. And you drift further and further inside yourself. Your closest companion is silence forever and ever. Amen.

JONATHAN MOSCONE: We never talk about our fathers. We never do. We never talk about them, except — except to say either the nicest things or the meanest things. But we never talk about what it meant to lose them and how it means to go your entire life with no — no — no path made before you.

DAVID IVERSON: The play is about finding that path. Even scenes about the legacy of George Moscone focus on finding that way forward.

ACTOR: My father has been languishing for over 30 years as an asterisk in the life of Harvey Milk.

ACTOR: No, honey, your father is doing just fine. It’s you who’s been languishing.

DAVID IVERSON: Jon can’t move forward, nor can his father’s memory be restored, until he fully faces the past.

In the play’s final scene, Jon visits his father’s grave. There’s no tidy ending, just a realization of where the path forward begins.

ACTOR: Looks nice, doesn’t it?

ACTRESS: Yes, it does.

TONY TACCONE: The play ends up being about learning how to grieve and the place of that in one’s life, the importance of that in one’s life, the blessing of grief.

JONATHAN MOSCONE: And that’s a first step. And the play is a first-step play. It’s a first step about this kind of complicated relationship, this huge relationship between life and death, between father and son.

DAVID IVERSON: Political legacies aren’t created anew in the play, nor is history remade. Instead, history is made personal.