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.