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A Conversation with Tony Kushner

This article shared 1938 times since Wed Feb 26, 2003
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The two-part drama, Angels in America, won the Pulitzer Prize and best play Tony Award for its gifted author, Tony Kushner. Subtitled A National Meditation on Gay Themes, the play ran for more than six months in its first Chicago production. Kushner's next play, Slavs!, featured a Soviet lesbian couple. His most recent play, Homebody/Kabul is set in Afghanistan. It opened in New York in December, 2001, just three months after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, although it was written long before.

Homebody/Kabul will be produced at the Steppenwolf Theatre Company in July, featuring ensemble member Amy Morton and directed by Frank Galati. Kushner visited Chicago recently to revise the script in a week-long private workshop with Morton and Galati. Meanwhile, the Off-Loop Wing & Groove Theatre Company is producing Kushner's early play, The Illusion, running through March 8. While Kushner was in Chicago last week, he was interviewed for WBEZ Chicago Public Radio by Windy City Times theater editor Jonathan Abarbanel. The following—including details of the all-star HBO film of Angels in America—is an edited transcript of that interview.

WCT: Homebody/Kabul was written well before the 9/11 attacks. Were your prescient about Afghanistan as a hot spot?

TONY KUSHNER: I started work on it in 1997, and it was in its third or fourth draft, and completely cast, at the point the attack happened on the World Trade Center. We went into rehearsal a month later. I've always been interested in Afghanistan. As a college student, I began reading about the Soviet army's invasion of Afghanistan, and I've paid attention to it ever since. It was a hot spot. The play takes place in August, 1998, right before and right after President Clinton bombed suspected terrorist training camps. Osama Bin-Laden was the target. I believed the neglect of Afghanistan was one of the great mistakes the world was making, and it became clear with the bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993. It was very clear that if we continued this reckless and immoral policy of ignoring the suffering of Afghanistan, there would be a consequence.

WCT: Homebody/Kabul played in New York in 2001-2002, received glowing reviews and has been published. Now you're revising it. What do you expect to accomplish? Isn't it finished?

TK: It's a very big play, and I worked on it under tough circumstances in New York. I mean, it was a tough time to be in rehearsal. There's a lot that I was unsatisfied with in New York. Sometimes plays are finished the minute you write them and sometimes they never get finished. I suspect this play, which covers a lot of territory, is something I'll work on for a really long time.

WCT: Do you rewrite in your hotel room each night and bring it in the next day? Or will you go home to New York, revise the play and ship Steppenwolf a new draft?

TK: I'm working every night. Well, last night I went home and watched Law and Order, and fell asleep. It was a very emotionally full day. Going back to the play after all this time was kind of overwhelming. But I woke up at six o'clock this morning and spent the entire morning writing, and I have a new version of the second and third acts. We'll read it today, I'll take a lot of notes and I'll go back to my room and make myself stay awake and work on it. I love working like this.

WCT: Do you write quickly?

TK: It takes me a really long time to start writing. Once I start, I write rather quickly.

WCT: You've been dubbed a political playwright and also a gay playwright. How do you self-identify? Do you categorize yourself?

TK: Sure! I'm a firm believer in the value of identity in politics. I think there are limitations with how far you can go with identity as a basis for political action, but I believe it still has a lot of value, especially if you are a member of a group that needs self-identification to further its political ends, groups that are suppressed or disenfranchised. I call myself a gay man, in part because I'm sexually attracted to men, in part because I'm a member of a group of American citizens who are not fully citizens; who've not been allowed a full degree of enfranchisement. So I think it's very important that I continue to identify as a gay man. So I call myself a gay, Jewish, socialist American, all of which are identities that I'm proud of, all of which are identities that need to stay in the public consciousness. Even though a play like Homebody/Kabul has no gay or Jewish or American characters in it, I'd like everyone coming to see it to know that they're watching a play written by a person who is, and proudly claims to be, a member of all of those different groups.

WCT: All of your plays are strongly political. Do you feel it's imperative for theater to be political?

TK: I think there's a political dimension to everything, in the same way there's a moral, or ethical, or philosophical, or psychological or even theological dimension to everything. I don't think the political can ever be ignored. Can ever be excluded, I mean; it can easily be ignored. A lot of art pretends to avoid the political, but there's ideology in everything. I don't see it as an imperative as much as it is something that I simply have no choice about. Everyone has to write to their strengths, their tastes and appetites, and everybody sees the world through their own collection of prisms, and prisons, too. I see the world politically. I get very angry, I get very stirred by political stories.

WCT: So we'll never see a Tony Kushner musical?

TK: Well, I have a musical that's opening at the New York Shakespeare Festival in September. Jeannine Tesori wrote the music. It's called Caroline, or Change. It's set in Louisiana in 1963 in the town that I grew up in. The music is astonishing. It's funny but, ultimately, it's very, very sad.

WCT: Do your politics reduce the marketability of your work? I haven't heard about a film version of Angels in America, for example.

TK: Well, the filming is finished, as of a month ago. Mike Nichols is directing it. Al Pacino, Meryl Streep, Emma Thompson, Mary Louis Parker and a host of other people. It's going to be on HBO in November, it's six hours long. So the answer is, no, I don't think it's hurt my marketability. There's a great appetite for political art, and for political discussion in the theater especially. It's not been my experience that political theater limits your audience. Bad political theater is no fun to watch, but bad any-kind-of theater is not fun to watch.

WCT: Do you have something new inspired by the Bush administration?

TK: I do. The Nation is going to publish the first scene of a play that I'm working on, purely out of rage at the Bush administration and this insane and criminal push towards what I believe would be a cataclysmic war with Iraq. Cataclysmic for the globe, and also for the health of American democracy. I started working about a month ago, and I wrote one scene which involves Laura Bush, and we're doing readings of it at various anti-war rallies. When The Nation called and said is there anything you want to publish, I said you've never published a play before, do you want to do this scene? So they're going to publish it in the March 5 issue. I'm now working on a second, third and fourth scene for it, and I'm having fun. It's a release valve. I have no idea whether the play will have any value beyond its therapeutic value for me.

WCT: Does it have a title?

TK: It does. It's called Only We Who Guard the Mystery Shall Be Unhappy, which is a line from Laura Bush's favorite book, The Brothers Karamazov.

Two Rooms

Playwright: Lee Blessing

At: American Theater Company,

1909 W. Byron

Phone: (773) 929-1031; $24.50-$26.50

Runs through: March 16


Just because a production deals with terrorism does not make it timely or pertinent to today's post-9/11 unrest. American Theater Company, in mounting Lee Blessing's 1988 play, Two Rooms, hopes to put forth some parallels between terrorism in Lebanon in the 1980s and the disquieting global climate today. I don't buy it. Yes, the play does have links with acts of terrorist cruelty, the fear and paranoia such behavior engenders, and the always volatile Middle East. But these things alone do not make Two Rooms especially prescient.

Whether Two Rooms is timely or not is beside the point, though. It's a play set squarely in the context of the 1980s and the atrocities taking place then in Beirut and has little to do with today's events. But, at the same time, I'm not faulting Two Rooms, because the play is really about the personal, human toll that acts of political terrorism exact. Blessing's story is about a couple separated by such terrorism. The husband (James Leaming) is an American hostage, blindfolded and handcuffed in an empty cell in Beirut. Alone, he talks to his wife as if she were there, helping to fill hours that otherwise might be absorbed in going insane. His wife (Cheryl Graeff), in America, has emptied his office of all of his belongings, making it an empty cell. It is her way of keeping vigil and establishing a kind of contact with her husband. The spareness of these two rooms allows a kind of meeting on an imaginary plane. The wife's only contacts outside of the spiritual and psychic connection she makes with her hostage husband are with a journalist (Andrew Micheli) who has both his own ambitions and her interests at heart and a political attaché (Suzanne Petri) with a desire to keep the wife from speaking out, lest it make the United States look bad.

The premise of the play is an intriguing one and I credit the playwright for his exploration of the human side of a very political issue. But premises and ideas do not make a great play. Two Rooms is saddled with its own desire to be earnest, to be weighty, to be serious. I'm not suggesting that the story here is none of these things and certainly not that it should be played for laughs. But the play takes itself too seriously; it's weighted down with a sobriety that makes the pacing agonizingly slow. And worse, it's a play that cries out for a sympathetic response to its characters. And Blessing doesn't give us anyone we can really care about. Michael and Lainie, the hostage and husband, is certainly a pitiable pair, and one for whom we can feel concern, but they weren't people with whom I could identify. It's essential that I care about them. I didn't. They were ciphers, putting forth in a somber fashion the playwright's ideological perspective.

Everyone involved with Two Rooms was earnest, almost to a fault. James Leaming's performance as the hostage was realistic and natural. Of any of the characters, he was the one for whom I could feel the most. Suzanne Petri as the political figure and Andrew Micheli as the journalist both delivered solid performances, the kind of inspired character work they're making a history of at American Theater Company. The only sour note was Cheryl Graeff as the wife. Her performance was mannered; she was acting instead of being. Since she was the emotional core of the play, embodying our own reaction to atrocity, it was vital that she was a real woman in pain. I didn't believe her.

Two Rooms is a play of ideas. Unfortunately, these ideas are never dramatized well enough to be engaging.

This article shared 1938 times since Wed Feb 26, 2003
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