Spotlight Iowa City: 2008 election collides with gay rights


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It was difficult for Justin Dewey to let go of America! (Our Better History), the first play he ever produced. But after helping make the casting decisions, Dewey slowly allowed the director to shape the show into something he was proud to call his own.

“There was a very great and strong reaction by the audience,” Dewey said, remembering the opening night while eating a plain bagel at Capanna. “They were very impressed with the work I did, as well as the director and cast.”

The UI senior, who has short, curly hair and wears glasses, had submitted America! (Our Better History) for an Honors project just months before it hit the stage. Such projects are usually performed in a small room with no set or costumes. To Dewey’s surprise, he received a letter from the theater department saying officials chose the show for something much more — the Gallery Series.

At the UI, students lead 15 Gallery productions each year. These works can be new plays by student playwrights, existing scripts directed by student directors, or actor-created projects. Graduate students typically snag these spots, because the UI’s program guarantees a graduate student to have a play produced.

But Dewey, a 22-year-old undergraduate, won a spot because of his show’s strong relevance to society at the time, he said.

His play centered on gay rights and the 2008 election. Asked to write a response to Obama’s inauguration, he chose the president’s rhetoric on gay-rights issues, unsure Obama would follow through on his promises. According to the president’s website, Obama opposes a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage and supports civil unions.

But the topic begged for more than just a five-minute scene. Dewey expanded it to a bigger show about how national politics are “forced,” he said, into personal lives, changing the way individuals are able to live.

Kate Stopa, a UI graduate student who worked as the dramaturge for the production of America! (Our Better History), said she was impressed with how Dewey interwove politics and gay issues.
“It covers a lot of ground while also being very funny and entertaining,” she said. “It presents important issues and allows people to enjoy themselves.”

Other theater authorities must have thought the same. Dewey recently won the Human Rights Playwright undergraduate award from UI Human Rights Campaign for his show.

Dewey said he’s always loved theater. He shifted, though, his sophomore year from his acting focus to writing plays after taking a class in the art.

“I was more interested in the words themselves rather than performing them,” he said. “I’m much better at creating characters than actually being a character.”

It was a good move. Classmate Alex Scott said Dewey has a knack for creating dialogue and developing characters.

“He’s always full of ideas that he’s passionate about,” Scott said.

Dewey’s worldly outlook also helps, Stopa said.

“He’s very in tune with what’s going on,” she said. “He’s active in the community and that’s what makes writers write plays that matter.”

And until Dewey finds a different way to fight for gay rights, he said he’s going to continue using the tool he has to reach people.

“Theater is the one way I connect to society and the world,” he said. “It’s the one way I know I can change the world.”

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