In 2013, Luke Donovan, a 19-year-old self-described queer anarchist, was involved in an altercation following a New Year’s party. A group of men (between five and 12 of them, depending on the source) hurled homophobic slurs and physically attacked him. This may have been an escalation from comments made earlier in the night. In a statement, Luke said that “in an attempt to defend myself from the attack [which] I thought could end my life, I stabbed five of them, while also being stabbed three times myself.”
Luke was charged with five counts of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, yet none of his alleged attackers were charged. Facing a gobsmacking 110-year sentence if convicted by a jury, Luke agreed to a plea deal of two years in prison, followed by eight years on probation and, even more strangely and archaically, banishment from his home state of Georgia, save one small rural county far from his community and home.
Judge Todd Markle claimed that words like “faggot,” which Luke’s assailants had used, were inoffensive and akin to calling someone a “baby.” He said he wished he could hand out a tougher sentence and found Luke’s attackers to be “very impressive” on the stand.
I wish I could say it gets less weird from there. That it ends triumphantly. That justice has found its way through. But instead, the curious case becomes more shrouded in questions the more you dig; different opinions, perspectives, and supposed witnesses deliver drastically different accounts of what was going on. The complexities of the case and the unfathomable bias present in Luke’s sentencing are shocking. Scandalous. It’s the kind of reading you sink your teeth into only to find your blood boiling. How can this make any sense?
When I was first compelled to write My Funny Valentine (seen in the 2017-18 Season at Buddies), about the 2008 murder of Lawrence King, the 15-year-old Californian who asked a boy in his class to be his valentine only to have that boy shoot him at school the next day, I couldn’t help but look at fringe perspectives, at the voices that the mainstream press wasn’t addressing. Though the case of Luke O’Donovan didn’t end in death, the embedded homophobia and self-righteousness within the proceedings and the verdict demand deep scrutiny.
There are inherent challenges in adapting real-life case material for the stage. Johnnie Walker’s Shove It Down My Throat leaps defiantly into the untenable divide between fact and fiction(s) in a whodunit – or perhaps “whydunit” – for the modern age. Taking inspiration from these real-life events, Johnnie disembowels them onstage, sifting them through playful lenses in an attempt to make sense of something that perhaps doesn’t make sense. Perhaps it can’t.
Luke was released from prison in 2016 and now lives on the West Coast as he serves his eight years on probation, with mandatory alcohol and drug tests throughout. He cannot return to his home state, and Judge Markle has ensured that should he ever violate his probation, he will be the judge Luke faces once again.
Following his sentencing, Luke was quoted as saying, “It is regrettable that anyone had to come to harm, but given the choice of whether to lose my life to a hateful attack or fight for the chance to live, I will always choose the ferocious refusal to go quietly into the night. This refusal was fuelled not by hate for my attackers but by my love for life. It is this passion for life that came in conflict with my attackers and this same passion that was arrested by the cops and is being punished by the courts. It is this passion that they are trying to chain, to cage, to rehabilitate me away from, but it is this passion that will pull my gaze – always forward – through the dark.”
photo by Tanja-Tiziana