Theatre

PBS explores the life and thoughts of a provocative playwright Tony Kushner

Robert Trussell
McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

Award-winning documentary filmmaker Freida Lee Mock turned her camera on outspoken playwright Tony Kushner for P.O.V.'s (Point of View's) "Wrestling With Angels: Playwright Tony Kushner."

The two-hour film will be broadcast Dec. 12 on PBS stations.

At a time when most American playwrights are given scant attention by the media or the public, Kushner stands out. He's a progressive whose plays often reveal his tireless thinking about politics, world affairs and social issues.

My first encounter with Kushner was in 1994 at the annual Humana Festival of New American Plays at the Actors Theatre of Louisville in Kentucky . Kushner was there to unveil his first play since his gargantuan two-part AIDS epic, "Angels in America," stormed onto Broadway the year before, claiming multiple Tony Awards and a Pulitzer Prize.

The festival had commissioned Kushner to write a one-act play, and he came up with "Slavs! Thinking About the Longstanding Problems of Virtue and Happiness." The piece consisted of reworked material cut from "Angels," and it ran about 45 minutes in three acts and an epilogue. It was a wacky but intellectually stimulating piece that linked nuclear pollution in Soviet Russia with scenes in Bolshevik heaven.

At a news conference with Kushner I had three thoughts: (a) He's really full of himself; (b) everything he says is fascinating; and © once you get past his self-absorption he's kind of charming.

Later Kushner came to Kansas City to speak, and I got him on the phone a week or two before the event. He said he didn't mind being branded "political," but he said virtually all the arts are political in one way or another.

"The political is an inescapable category in the arts of a democratic society," he said. "It's a job we've given to ourselves. We may wrestle with God. We may wrestle with the human psyche. We may wrestle with all sorts of metaphysical concerns ... but almost inevitably, at some point or another, we have to acknowledge that we've created a universe that is secular and pluralistic and dedicated to the very complicated question of how human beings can create something as artificial and absolutely necessary to human survival as justice."

That's the way he talks - in long, complex, extemporaneous, grammatically correct sentences.

For her documentary, Mock borrowed a structure from the two full-length plays that compose "Angels." She presents the movie in three acts with an epilogue.

Along the way we watch footage about the opening and mixed critical reaction to Kushner's play "Homebody/Kabul"; his roots in Lake Charles, La.; the emotional difficulty of telling his parents he is gay; his collaboration with children's author Maurice Sendak on "Brundibar," based on propaganda plays staged by the Nazis in concentration camps which required performances by dozens of doomed Jewish children; the development of the autobiographical "Caroline or Change," based on Kushner's childhood relationship with his family's black maid; and his belief that artists have "an ethical obligation not to despair, to look for hope."

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