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Stage a mirror of Dianne Hardy-Garcia's activist life

Out & About

Michael Barnes
mbarnes@statesman.com
Actress Suzanne Balling (left) plays activist Dianne Hardy-Garcia (right) in 'Just Outside Redemption'

Two weeks ago, Dianne Hardy-Garcia, formerly of Austin, saw herself on stage.

"It was very nerve-wracking and surreal," says the veteran campaigner for political and charitable causes. "I was humbled and honored — and slightly terrified at the same time."

Hardy-Garcia, who now lives in Los Angeles with her partner, Corri Planck, and their two daughters, watched as keen-edged actor Suzanne Balling inhabited her intense personality.

The occasion? The opening of Dennis Bailey's "Just Outside Redemption," produced by Theatre en Bloc and running through Sunday at the City Theatre. The drama concerns Hardy-Garcia's efforts to usher the James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Act, named for the black man who was horrifically murdered in Jasper, through the Texas Legislature. Gov. Rick Perry signed the bill into law in 2001.

Recently, we've been blessed by top performers playing Austin figures such as Gov. Ann Richards, writer Molly Ivins and first lady Lady Bird Johnson. These subjects, however, were deceased at the time. That changes the dynamics considerably.

"I always said the great thing about doing this play is that it happened here in Austin," playwright Bailey says. "The difficult thing is that it happened here in Austin. Meaning I knew we had to get at least the gist of it right or we would be called on it. People are not shy here. They tell you when they think you've erred."

On that score, Bailey and his artistic team have received almost uniform approval from the people who worked with Hardy-Garcia when she ran the Lesbian Gay Rights Lobby of Texas from 1993 to 2002. Her job was to ensure that sexual orientation was included in the bill's language, that allies rallied against the crimes and that victims' loved ones testified in order to ensure bipartisan support.

"In addition to the shocking nature of the violence itself, one of the most painful things about that time was being told that the victims of anti-gay hate crimes got what they deserved," Hardy-Garcia recalls. "Even in the face of such brutality, we were continually told that the gay community of Texas was unworthy of hate crime protections. That finally changed."

The play grew out of the book "Brave Journeys," a series of leadership profiles written by Bailey and David Mixner, published in 2000. The next year, Bailey brought up the possibility of a dramatic adaptation.

"Back in 2001, the topic was still very raw," Hardy-Garcia says. "And we hadn't yet passed the legislation. ... When Dennis mentioned doing a play about this struggle then, I was unable to imagine it."

In the past months, as Bailey revived the idea, he met with Hardy-Garcia to go over some of the details. The producers also assured her that the story would be told respectfully.

"I was able to try to get past the pain of this struggle and get more proud of the effort," she says. "But battle scars remain."

Bailey included in the play details from Hardy-Garcia's personal life, including her divorce from her previous partner of 14 years.

"Dennis accurately captured some of our personal conflicts from the time he spent with us both as he was working on the book," she says. "I was deeply ashamed at the failure of my first relationship. I was raised Catholic and some things stick. The play challenged my sense of privacy in that regard and forced me to re-evaluate what I saw as a tremendous failure on my part."

The playwright, however, needed to humanize the activists.

"I had made the decision to approach the material much like Larry Kramer did in ‘The Normal Heart," Bailey says. "Taking the story and characters a step away from the factual day-to-day so I could develop a clear-cut theatrical arc for the play."

Hardy-Garcia worked with the team in advance on the legislative language and the culture of the statehouse. She was grateful that a speech by her legislative hero, Rep. Senfronia Thompson, was included. Some of the action, of course, is condensed, since the campaign lasted for years. Some names are changed, and other characters are composites.

"Billy Thibodeaux, who is murdered at the beginning of the play — hello: spoiler alert! — is a composite of several of the victims, especially Tommy Musick and Nicholas West," Bailey says. The comic-relief character Harlene, a West Texas housewife who helps out with lobbying, echoes the mothers who had sons they suspected might be gay and who wanted to do something constructive, Bailey says.

On opening night, Hardy-Garcia called up to the stage many of the real people from the story, including assistant Andy Delony and several board members. Rep. Glen Maxey, who preceded her as a gay rights lobbyist, joined her, but sadly not lobbyist Bettie Naylor, who died earlier this year.

Perhaps most moving was the presence of Cruz Saldana and Denise Guerrero, who lost their brother, Ernest Saldana, to a hate crime in 1994.

"They were one of the victims' families who repeatedly testified about the need for this bill until its ultimate passage," Hardy-Garcia says. "There were many families that were so courageous, but the Saldana family stuck through this process for so long, and I've always deeply admired them."

The tight ensemble includes some stand-out performances from Beth Broderick (comedy) and Ryan Hamilton (drama). A Texas tour and a teleplay are being discussed.

"It was easier to see the portrayals of other characters because I love those people so," Hardy-Garcia says. "I was glad their hard work was honored, and I still wish we could have included and honored more of the people who worked personally on this issue."

Contact Michael Barnes at mbarnes@statesman.com or 445-3647. Twitter: @outandabout