[EDITOR'S NOTE:] This guest post comes to us from Ray Jencar. Ray is a former teacher and current grad student at the University of Louisville. He hopes someday, like Socrates, to corrupt the minds of youth.
“Despair is the easy choice because it allows apathy. Hope insists you stay active and present.” -- Tony Kushner
Nothing like a night with Tony Kushner to inspire you! I just came back from listening to an interview with Kushner (Angels in America
) at the Spectrum here in Louisville, hosted by the College of Arts and Sciences for their Centennial “Life of the Mind” series. Kushner was interviewed by Russell Vandenbroucke, Chair of the Department of Theatre Arts at University of Louisville, and he proved to be an erudite and passionate speaker with an insightful sense of humor (and quite a thing for Condoleezza Rice!)
Born in Manhattan in 1956 and educated at Columbia University and NYU, Kushner is a Pulitzer Prize winning playwright (Angels) and Oscar nominated screenwriter (for Steven Spielberg’s film Munich) and one of America’s leading public intellectuals. Part One of his play Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes, titled Millennium Approaches, was first performed in 1990; Part Two, Perestroika, was first performed in 1992. Both received back to back Tony Awards for Best Play in 1993 and 1994. He has gone on to write many other plays, including Caroline or Change and Homebody/Kabul, among others. His forthcoming play is titled The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures. He is also currently at work on the screenplay of a bio pic about Abraham Lincoln, directed by Spielberg.
He opened the evening with a reading of his piece Prayer for New York, which he was commissioned to write in response to 9/11. In it the citizens of New York hire a lawyer to petition God to answer their prayer for peace, unity and understanding. “If you cannot answer our prayer,” they plead, “at least make us worthy of answering our prayer.”
The event at the Spectrum took place, coincidentally, on National Coming Out Day. At one point, while having difficulty with the microphone, Kushner quipped, “I’m lisping. Everyone will know I’m gay.” “We won’t tell,” responded Vandenbroucke.
On his role as a public intellectual, Kushner was cautious, while noting that a playwright creates texts that really are a debating platform disguised as entertainment; citing George Bernard Shaw as an influence, saying that Shaw’s plays are dialectic, in which characters “answer the unanswerable.”
“The audience knows I’m gay and a socialist,” he observed about himself. But, “because I’m in the theatre, nobody takes me seriously. No one’s gonna die—I’m not making policy.” But he concluded that theatre reaches people because, “It’s humanity that lies beyond the political.”
Kushner is a man of many faces—gay, Jewish, New Yorker, transplanted Southerner (he currently resides in Louisiana). When asked about questions of identity he focused his attention on the anthology, Wrestling with Zion, a book he edited with Alisa Solomon that deals with perspectives on the Israeli-Palestinian struggle. Kushner bemoaned the idea that there was one voice speaking for Jews in regards to this issue, noting that the book contains many voices of progressive Jewish writers. Kushner claimed that he is not an “Anti-Zionist” but views himself as a “diasporin Jew,” worried that Zionism can lead to apartheid and racism. Kushner said he was most pleased that the book debunks the myth that there is one voice speaking for Jews on the issue. “If you want to silence debate,” he said, “you accuse your opponent of the worst crimes imaginable.” When asked if he felt there was one voice speaking for the gay community he expressed his reservations about the HRC, his support for a Trans-inclusive ENDA, and said that he felt the key to solving the apathy of gay activism (particularly in regards to AIDS) was for the gay community to be more involved with other minorities in their struggles. “As the demographics changed,” (in regards to the AIDS epidemic), “and it became globalized, the passionate activism dissipated,” he explained. The answer, he seemed to feel, was to globalize activism.
Finally, the conversation turned to Kushner’s current project—the screenplay for the Lincoln bio pic. This was the most comical point of the evening—Kushner could give Jon Stewart a run for his money. He pointed out the irony that in Lincoln’s time the Republicans were the Left party (called the Republican Radicals) and how Bush has erroneously tried to draw comparisons between himself and Lincoln (“I’m a Republican. I’m an unpopular President in an unpopular war”). When asked if he thought Lincoln was gay, Kushner first responded, “We’ll never know,” hedging his bets into a discussion of 19th Century sexuality and that it could not be defined by current terms. Melville’s Billy Budd could be read as a gay parable, according to Kushner. In regards to Lincoln’s “bed-sharing” with Joshua Speed, Kushner told the story of a speech Lincoln gave in which Lincoln said, “I should know Joshua Speed well. I’ve been sleeping with him for three years.” Kushner commented, “I don’t think he would have said that if what he meant was, ‘’Boy, was he hot!’” On the other hand, Kushner conceded that he believed Lincoln was a genius and that, “All the great geniuses are bisexual. It would be disappointing if Shakespeare wasn’t bisexual. And you know Candi Rice—she’s just too pretty to have a boyfriend!”
My sentiments exactly!
Angels in America, Part I, “Millennium Approaches,” will be playing at University of Louisville Playhouse, November 14-18.