In what artistic director Joe Dowling called “the climax” of the Guthrie’s celebration of Tony Kushner’s work, the playwright himself appeared Monday night in conversation with Dowling on the theater’s Wurtele Thrust stage. In a series of long, passionate answers to a relatively few questions, Kushner earned the $20-$40 each attendee paid for admission, winning frequent applause for his eloquently stated views on theater and politics.
His body still but his large hands in perpetual motion, Kushner vigorously argued for the importance of having an engaged yet patient worldview. A recurring theme in his remarks was the tension between having strongly-held convictions—including his own beliefs in the merits of socialism and the wicked power-hungriness of the political right—and the necessity of understanding that the world is complex and change comes gradually. The theme is clearly recognizable in his new play The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures (Kushner noted his husband has dubbed the play iHo), which centers on a character who in his advanced age is still grappling with the failures of his revolutionary youth.
In this spirit, Kushner explained in response to a question by Dowling, he wrote his play Homebody/Kabul—a play that debuted in December 2001 but was penned before 9/11—about the gulf between the utopian rhetoric of Afghan revolutionaries and the brutal reality of life in Afghanistan in the 1990s. He chooses theater as his medium of expression, he said, because a live performance forces the audience to acknowledge the messy, chancy nature of life in the way a packaged and endlessly replayable movie or song doesn’t. To fetishize mass-produced commodities—including mass-produced culture—is, said Kushner, to “buy death.” One wonders what he and his husband Mark Harris, an editor at mass-culture bible Entertainment Weekly, do on the weekends.
Dowling entertained several questions from the audience, which miraculously were all as concise as Kushner’s answers were sprawling. (Joking about his two-part epic Angels in America, the development of which was funded by the NEA, the playwright said that “the people of the United States of America had hired me to write that play, so I thought I’d better make it long.”) The final questioner asked Kushner to comment on the catchphrase “gay is the new black,” at which Kushner observed that while some of history’s greatest tragedies were caused by oppressed minority groups failing to find common cause, “it’s best not to be glib” in drawing comparisons between the terrible treatment of homosexuals in American history and the even deeper horrors of slavery.
Another questioner asked Kushner about the experience of seeing his scripts—the hyperliterate bard had earlier referred to plays as “literature, but also scripts for kinetic events”—enacted on stage. Drawing a sympathetic chuckle from an audience that was aware of the down-to-the wire changes he’d made in the Guthrie’s world premiere production of iHo, he acknowledged that he does continue to work with his scripts even after productions have started rehearsal. “I like to fuck with the director and actors,” he said. “Please remember that I said with!”
Jay Gabler (email@example.com) is the Daily Planet’s arts editor.
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