“Angels” playwright out front on Afghanistan, civil rights era
Is there any upward boundary on Tony Kushner’s rise? His burst into prominence in 1993 with the seven-hour, two-part Broadway blockbuster, “Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes” was astounding. The acclaim was immediate––a Pulitzer for playwriting, two consecutive Tony Awards for best play (for “Millennium Approaches” and then, in 1994, “Perestroika”), two Drama Desk Awards, the New York Critics Circle Award, the Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle Award, and, in London, the Evening Standard Award, and two Olivier Award nominations.
“Angels”–– focused on three households in turmoil: a gay couple, one of whom has AIDS; a married Mormon man coming to terms with his sexuality; and the infamous right wing lawyer Roy Cohn, closeted to the end, who died of AIDS in 1986––last year had a striking film adaptation, directed by Mike Nichols, and starring Al Pacino, Emma Thompson, and Meryl Streep.
The film triumph on HBO in December was but one part of Kushner’s winning troika this season. On May 2, “Caroline, Or Change,” his critically acclaimed play that opened last year at the Public Theater, has its official Broadway opening at the Eugene O’Neill. Set in Lake Charles, Louisiana in November 1963, “Caroline” examines the way in which profound change is introduced innocuously enough into the life of a black maid struggling to raise four children without the help of her divorced husband.
Meanwhile, at the Brooklyn Academy of Music from May 11 through May 30, Kushner’s “Homebody Kabul” has a revival. Demonstrating extraordinary intuition about the state of our planet, he completed his intimate story about the wanderings of a British housewife through Afghanistan just before the 9-11 tragedy.
Much of “Angels,” “Caroline,” and “Kabul” are deeply tied to Kushner’s identity. Born in Manhattan in July 1956, he grew up in the Lake Charles of his fictional “Caroline,” a Jew in the Deep South during the most intense years of the civil rights movement. Kushner earned his bachelor’s degree at Columbia University and did graduate work at New York University. As an American Jew, Kushner has consistently been willing to offer a perspective from the left on the state of Israel and the Middle East generally.
When Gay City News reached Kushner recently at his Upper West Side apartment, he was orbiting between work related to opening his two shows, writing his newest play for Stephen Spinella, called “The Intelligent Homosexuals Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures,” and attempting to keep his marriage thriving. Kushner is a whirlwind of activism, creativity, and devotion to his man.
Kushner addressed the powerful role his gay identity and his commitment to political change has on his playwriting.
“Being an activist and making art sometimes I feel that when I mix the two, both can suffer and sometimes I feel as if I hit it just right,” he said. “It was never my intention that gay issues would be my main topic, although I am currently writing a play that is about gay issues, but for me everything I write is written by a gay writer, so the underlying information is gay. I don’t want to distract myself from my identity and I have a political perspective that is most shaped by being gay. That is inescapable. So if I write about loss, or change or empowerment, at the root is where I come from; and that is being gay.”
As much as being gay, however, the influence of the AIDS pandemic continues to resonate in Kushner’s work.
“I would say that often I feel as if the biggest theme that runs through my work is loss,” he reflected. “Maybe that has to do with coming of age in the most terrifying part of the AIDS crisis, well, at least so far––at least before there was any protocol for keeping people alive. Maybe it became indelible that loss was a part of understanding life.”
In that sense, Kushner’s more recent work is not the departure from his roots that it might at first blush seem.
When asked about his new works whose content is Afghanistan or racial identity Kushner demurred, “There isn’t concerted effort on my part to move away from the gay community. Partly it is a strategic choice I didn’t want to repeat myself, not about being gay or the epidemic. There are other things I need to write about; and during my career I will address certain subjects.
“People who understand being gay, or the gay culture, know that it is about being a minority facing a majoritarian rule, so questions of oppression translate across various boundaries. That is what drew me to the issues in ‘Kabul’ and ‘Caroline.’ After writing about those issues, then I understand more about myself as a gay person, and of course I hope others understand more.”
Kushner married his partner Mark Harris, an Entertainment Weekly editor, last year at a Manhattan Italian restaurant at a ceremony officiated over by a rabbi that was covered in the Vows page of the Sunday Times. Asked earlier this year by the Chronicle about the opportunity to wed legally in San Francisco, Kushner said he and Harris are waiting for legal marriage to commence in Massachusetts in May.
“What strikes me as strange is that this seems like a place where blacks and gays would unite,” he observed. “But the complicated stand by some African American columnists saying that gay marriage is co-opting the legacy of civil rights is wrong. Instead, I feel as if we are honoring that legacy by asking for equality. Don’t we speak to that legacy by speaking to freedom? What I write asks people to face these issues.”
Kushner, like Arthur Miller a generation before him, is a writer who insists that a playwright’s role is to be a political provocateur.
“I am a gay American Jew and I am a writer who believes that anyone who has a stake in the future of the human race should deal with any reservations they have with [Democratic presumptive presidential nominee John] Kerry and be an activist during this election,” Kushner argued. “We all need to get involved and make sure this dreadful man [Pres. George W. Bush] and his criminal administration get the boot I think we all need to keep speaking.”
At a critical time in the nation’s history, Kushner and his art are once again grabbing for the cultural center stage.
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