PHOTOS COURTESY OF AFF/SANDERS & MOCK
He’s unassuming. Riding the train, scurrying across the city, he’s just another New Yorker and a busy man contributing to the bustle of a busy city. In “Wrestling with Angels,” the documentary about this extraordinary American playwright, the Oscar-winning director Freida Lee Mock follows Tony Kushner for three years. Throughout, there is not even a whisper of a moment in which Kushner stops to preen.
He has reason to do so. Ever since his epic play “Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes” debuted on Broadway in 1993, Tony Kushner has been inundated with accolades. He won back-to-back Tony Awards for Best Play. He received the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Later, when Mike Nichols directed a miniseries version of the play for HBO, he received Emmy and Golden Globe awards.
If Kushner wanted to rest on his laurels, he could hardly be faulted. Yet he in no way seems to slow down, let alone rest. A tireless political activist, Kushner travels the country delivering addresses to universities. Leading up to the 2004 presidential election, he volunteered for John Kerry’s campaign in Florida, all while continuing to write critically acclaimed works like “Caroline, or Change,” which ran on Broadway in 2004. He also managed to find time to co-write the screenplay for Steven Spielberg’s 2005 film “Munich.” Meanwhile, he is working on a new collaboration with the director.
With a schedule like that, it is just short of a miracle that Tony Kushner has found time to visit the University of Louisville this month for an interview and question-and-answer session, part of The Life of the Mind series.
Louisville is no stranger to Kushner or his work. He has attended Actors Theatre of Louisville’s Humana Festival as a spectator, and he debuted several of his plays there in the 1990s, most notably “Slavs!” and “Reverse Transcription: Six Playwrights Bury a Seventh.”
“The opportunity to hear Tony Kushner speak live should not be missed,” says Marc Masterson, ATL’s artistic director. “He is one of the brightest minds working in the American theater and possesses a burning talent.”
Thus far, his crowning glory remains the sweeping “Angels in America,” a play in two parts. U of L Theatre is producing the first part, “Millennium Approaches,” this fall. Set in 1985 in New York City, the play examines two couples, one gay and one straight, and their relationships with nurses, friends and family, with the fates of all quickly becoming enmeshed.
Tom Byers, a U of L English professor who helped organize Kushner’s visit, heralds the play.
“As a specialist in contemporary American literature, I think Tony Kushner’s ‘Angels in America’ is the single most important American play since ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?’” Byers says. “More than that, it has become a mainstay of college courses not only in theater but also in contemporary literature, gender studies and Jewish studies. It is a life-affirming play.”
It’s no surprise that “Angels” still inspires. Kushner’s works tend to include a remarkably strong sense of hope, which is refreshing, considering that hope is (mistakenly) seen as naive in modern society.
“It’s a luxury to abandon hope, and most people aren’t in circumstances in which they can do so,” Kushner said during a phone interview. “It’s a moral choice; it’s wrong to indulge in luxuries that others don’t have.”
This spirituality is palpable in Kushner’s plays. Kushner’s Jewish background informs his work in more than just a traditional sense, as Rinda Frye, acting chair of the university’s theater department and director of its upcoming production of “Angels,” observes.
“There’s the sense in this particular play that America has lost its way spiritually, not just in a religious way; we’ve sold our birthright of humanity and interconnectedness in order to make commodities of people,” she says. “The play is so timely today, with many fundamentalist groups — not just foreign but here on our soil, too — that see themselves as human and others as infidels.”
If an urge to thwart change is born of a world filled with despair, as “Angels” suggests, then, conversely, one’s proclivity to a state of hope comes from embracing change. And Kushner, having always been outspoken about his political views, is ready for change.
I reminded him of an interview he gave in 1996 in which he said, “A Republican president with a Republican Congress will destroy this country.” He reacted, saying, “Well, I was right about that! We let them take over and now we’re in terrible trouble. In my own home state of Louisiana, the city of New Orleans is still in great danger of flooding, but the response to Katrina was to get rid of a stupid Democrat and replace with a rightwing Republican … the South keeps bringing back these Republicans, and when Biloxi
gets washed away, they’ll have no one to blame but themselves.”
Yet Kushner still holds on to hope. “Despair is the comfortable choice, because it allows you to become passive in the world,” he says. “Hope insists you stay active and present.”
Active defines what Tony Kushner is. And his work runs counter to the sentiments expressed in Charles Bukowski’s 1990 poem “This”:
you wonder where the real ones are
what giant cave hides them
as the deathly talentless bow to accolades …
The real ones sometimes receive the awards, but as Tony Kushner demonstrates, they probably won’t stick around for the after-party. There’s too much work to be done.
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