Saturday, December 15, 2007

Wrestling with Angels

Last night, I watched the documentary on playwright Tony Kushner that's airing this month on PBS, "Wrestling with Angels." It's a really illuminating look at Kushner as a writer and as a person.

My introduction to his work came through the 2003 HBO miniseries of "Angels in America." I didn't actually have HBO at the time it aired, so while I was waiting for it to come out on DVD, I read the two plays that make up Angels: "Millennium Approaches" and "Perestroika."

While Kushner's work is about the AIDS crisis, it's not solely about that. In addition to the angels and the Mormons and Roy Cohn and Ethel Rosenberg what I took away from it was a very thoughtful and perceptive examination of what happens when someone we love falls ill. How well do we handle it?

And I think the final scene, in front of the Bethesda Fountain in Central Park, is so stirring and inspiring. It's not an ending about dying from a horrible disease, but rather about living with it, surrounded by people you love. There's a glimmer of hope and a vow not to be silent ever again.

The documentary, by Academy Award winner Freida Lee Mock, touches on most of Kushner's works. But it spends the most time on some of his more recent endeavors, including the play "Homebody/Kabul," the Holocaust-themed opera "Brundibar" and the musical drawing on his Louisiana childhood, "Caroline, or Change." (There must have been a lot of cameras following Kushner at one point, because "Caroline, or Change" is also one of the shows featured in the documentary "ShowBusiness: The Road to Broadway.")

Kushner wears his progressive politics on his sleeve, and he talks a lot about the political nature of his plays. We even see him going to Florida to ferry voters to the polls during the last presidential election. He's constantly talking about the need for the individual to take a stand and make a difference.

But it's the personal parts of the documentary that really fascinated me and gave me a fuller portrait of Tony Kushner than I'd ever had before. We see him getting around New York City on foot, by subway and cab, with a backpack slung over his shoulder. We visit his house in the country, and the little shed where he writes. We're guests at the wedding of Kushner and his partner, Mark Harris, in a traditional Jewish ceremony. (I caught sight of Marian Seldes for a brief second in a corner of the screen. That woman is everywhere!)

I especially loved the look at his small-town Southern Jewish roots. Kushner talks a lot about his family in the documentary. We travel with him to his hometown of Lake Charles, La. We see the small brick synagogue where he had his bar mitzvah and the lumberyard that his family owned. We meet his father and his brother.

I think that the title can work on two levels. Obviously, it's an allusion to "Angels in America." But I thought of another possible allusion. In the Book of Genesis, Jacob spends all night wrestling with a mysterious being, or an angel. He's given the name Israel, meaning one who has struggled or wrestled with God and prevailed.

Since then, the idea of wrestling with God has in many ways been at the core of Jewish identity. To me, it's not simply a religious struggle, but a struggle to understand the world and your place in it.

Whether or not you agree with his politics, I think that as a person, and as a playwright, that is what Tony Kushner is doing. He comes across as a very sincere, likable person as he talks about all of his struggles: coming out to his parents and being true to himself as a gay man, what it means to be a good person and a good citizen, and what an individual can do to make the world a better place.


SarahB said...

I watched this too. A couple of years ago, I went to what was supposed to be a reading of Caroline, Or Change by Tony Kushner at the Coliseum Book Shop on 42nd Street. Unfortunately, Tony chose not to read from it but rather from a letter to an editor he had written about some political thing about Bush. It was interesting to hear him read his own words, but really, it was of little interest to me. Yes, I get it, Tony. Tell me something I don't know. Anyway, Caroline was already closed but starting to have hopes of a regional life. After the reading, Tony signed my libretto and I treasure it. I have my Noah to thank for introducing me to this beautiful piece of drama. I saw it with him the first time and went again immediately, just a day before it closed. It changed the way I looked at musical theatre and basically lead me to the intellectualism of Sondheim's works.

Steve On Broadway (SOB) said...

Esther, Great read. And yes, Marian Seldes is everywhere - I saw her from afar last Sunday when I took in the opening night (actually, it was afternoon) performance of the surprisingly funny Is He Dead?.

Esther said...

Sarah, wow that's so great that you got to meet Tony Kushner and get your libretto signed! I'd love to meet him. Once again, I'm so envious of your life!

I can understand your being disappointed that he chose to read a letter to the editor rather than from "Caroline, or Change." I've always been very interested in the history of the civil-rights movement, and the relationship between African-Americans and Jews, so I really wish I could have seen it.

I don't know, I realize that politics are very important to Kushner, and he feels very strongly about what's going on in this country. And I certainly respect his ability to speak out, to exercise his rights as a citizen. Still, I can't help but think that he can have the most impact through the characters he creates in his plays.

I liked seeing Al Pacino as Roy Cohn and Meryl Streep as Ethel Rosenberg, but I think the part of "Angels in America" that resonated most strongly with me was the story of everyday people coping with the disease.

And like I said, the personal parts of the documentary were the ones that really struck me - watching TK go back to his hometown, interact with his father, the wedding, meeting with his weight-loss counselor.

This might be a strange comparison, but one of the reasons I love "Hairspray" so much, besides the music, is for the way it tells an important part of American history in a way that is so entertaining, with compelling characters. "Hairspray" ends up making a very strong statement about equality.

I'm not saying Tony Kushner should stick to writing plays and leave politics alone, I'm just saying that sometimes I think you can actually be more political by being less overtly political.

I wish that for one afternoon, he could have set aside his anger with Bush, and read from "Caroline, or Change." What he had to say in that musical about race in America, what he said about AIDS in "Angels," is just as important.

Esther said...

Thanks for the compliment Steve!

I guess it wouldn't be an opening night (or afternoon) without Marian Seldes in the audience!

I had the pleasure of speaking with her for a few minutes, at "Gypsy" over the summer. And as we know, she is such a sweet, gracious woman, as well as a real trouper!

SarahB said...

So true about it wouldn't be an opening without Marian. My goal is to become Marian. Sort of. Anyway, I think what bothers me about the political talk is that when it's NY, it's preaching to the choir, you know? I'm from Texas and most of my friends and all of my family there are very conservative. I do not agree with them but I also don't bother in attempting a conversion. It's pointless. I know that Tony's speeches are meant to incite support, but most of the people he's talking to are already supporting his cause. So, yes, stick with making a statement through art. I think the reach if further felt.