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Alum right at home as judge in marriage equality play

Tom Chiola

Illinois State alumnus and retired judge Tom Chiola.

Following in Academy Award nominee Brad Pitt’s footsteps would make some amateur actors nervous, but Tom Chiola ’74 is more than qualified for the job.

Chiola, a retired circuit court judge from Chicago, will portray presiding Judge Vaughn R. Walker in a staged reading of 8 on the Illinois State campus at 7:30 p.m. September 8. The play chronicles the historic trial in the federal constitutional challenge to California’s Proposition 8, which banned gay marriage.

Pitt played Walker in a star-studded reading of 8 in Los Angeles in March, a performance Chiola watched online. (Redbird alumna Jane Lynch ’82 was in the cast too.) Let’s just say Chiola wasn’t taking notes.

“And I’m thinking, ‘Oh my God, he doesn’t even know what he’s saying. He doesn’t know what these legal terms are. That’s too bad,’” Chiola said.

The retired judge will be well-versed in the legalese for the Illinois State performance, co-sponsored by the Prairie Pride Coalition, the School of Theatre and Dance and other campus partners. The play was written by Dustin Lance Black, also the writer of the films Milk and J. Edgar, based on trial transcripts and first-hand observations in the Proposition 8 court case Perry v. Schwarzenegger. The play shows both sides present their best evidence, arguments and witnesses for and against marriage for gay and lesbian Americans, while showing how the case affected the plaintiffs and their children.

U.S. District Court (Walker’s court) ruled Prop. 8 unconstitutional in August 2010, a ruling later affirmed by an appeals court. The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to decide soon whether to take the case or to allow marriage equality to take permanent hold in California.

In 1994, Chiola became Illinois’ first openly gay candidate elected to public office. So he has a keen interest in the Proposition 8 case not only as an active member of the gay and lesbian community, but also a judge curious about how both sides are framing the legal issues involved.

“There were lots of questions about whether it was the right approach, the right time to bring a case like that,” Chiola said. “Would the Supreme Court be ready to handle something like this favorably?”

At the heart of 8, however, are the plaintiffs: lesbian couple Kris Perry and Sandy Stier and their sons, and gay couple Paul Katami and Jeff Zarrillo.

The writer Black “did a great job of bringing, in particular, the lesbian couple’s sons into the story, to personalize and humanize what the kids were going through hearing this testimony and, essentially, the lies that were being told about their family and their family relationship,” Chiola said.

Chiola moved to Chicago in 1978 after finishing up law school at University of Illinois. He did a lot of theater as a kid, almost every summer in Springfield. He took several theater classes at Illinois State too, and one of his good friends was Steppenwolf Theatre Company alum Rondi Reed ’77.

He was approached by organizers of the Illinois State production earlier this year during a reading of 8 at Northwestern University in Chicago.

“I told them I’d love to be a part of it, if they’re doing it,” Chiola said.

Admission is free for the September 8 reading of 8 at Illinois State’s Center for the Performing Arts Theatre, but donations to the American Foundation for Equal Rights will be accepted. For more information, call 309-438-8088.

Check out some footage from a previous reading of 8 below:

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