Wrestling With Angels: Playwright Tony Kushner

2006, Movie, NR, 98 mins


Speaking at Vassar College's 2002 commencement, Louisiana-born, New York-based playwright Tony Kushner asks the graduating class a simple question: Why on earth would you invite a playwright to come speak at your graduation? Do you want everyone to think you're gay? But to anyone familiar with the Pulitzer Prize winner's work in both the theater and in progressive politics, the answer is simple: Few public figures are as fully connected to the world around them. He is, as Oscar-winning filmmaker Freida Lee Mock's (MAYA LIN: A STRONG CLEAR VISION) affectionate documentary makes abundantly clear, a citizen of the world. Divided into three acts — the first subtitled "As a Citizen of the World" — the film begins not with his childhood or the success of Angels in America, but with Kushner's experiences in the aftermath of 9/11 when his already completed play, Homebody/Kabul, was about to go into rehearsal. This uncannily prescient work, in which a naive Englishwoman travels to Kabul and falls victim to the Taliban, anticipated Islamicist terrorism on U.S. soil while seeking to explore the reasons for the tremendous animosity toward the U.S. through one woman's relationship to the world. Mock follows Kushner through the nerve-racking moments leading up to the opening-night performance, then jumps ahead to February 2003, when Kushner lends his voice to the growing anti-Iraq War movement. In the second act, "Mama, I'm a Homosexual Mama," Kushner recalls growing up the son of progressive, left-leaning Jewish musicians in Lake Charles, Louisiana. A self-described "sissy," Kushner only came to terms with his sexuality after leaving home to become a medieval-studies major at Columbia University. His experiences coming out in the early '80s informed Angels in America, a massive, seven-hour stage play about Roy Cohn, repressed Mormons and HIV that now ranks as one of the key theatrical works of the late 20th century. Kushner's evolution as a playwright parallels his personal journey, and the segment culminates with his wedding to companion Mark Harris. Mock's final act, "Collective Action to Overcome Injustice," centers on Kushner's Jewish identity, his relationship to his Lithuanian ancestors and his collaboration with Maurice Sendak on a revival of Hans Krasa's Brundibar, an operatic fable once performed by the children of the Theresienstadt concentration camp. Kushner's commitment to exploring social injustice and his growing interest in libretto sparks one of his strongest works since Angels: the musical Caroline, or Change, about the struggles of a Southern Jewish family's African-American housekeeper in the early '60s to keep her experience of injustice from tainting her relationship with the world around her. Kushner's large body of work is as thematically consistent as it is varied in subject and scope, and Mock's film leaves us with a sense of gratitude and a feeling of relief that so thoughtful an artist continues to work among us, capturing and reacting to the world as he buzzes through it. leave a comment --Ken Fox

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Wrestling With Angels: Playwright Tony Kushner
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