Correction to this original article: The event was a benefit for the Morris Cafritz Center for the Arts at the DCJCC, which includes the literary department, music department, film department and Theater J. More info about the whole center for the arts is here: http://washingtondcjcc.org/center-for-arts/.
Since the DC area is filled with non-profits, charities, museums, and arts organizations, we have something of a specialized industry in one of the quirkiest event types: the Benefit. Known by many names (the Gala, the Party, the Special Event, or, god forbid the bluntness, the Fundraiser), these events ask patrons to plunk down triple digit figures at minimum to attend the exclusive function.
What do the patrons get in return? Surely, they must get heaps warm and fuzzy feelings for giving so much to their favorite organization because, even more surely, they don’t pay that much to dress in suits, eat passed hors d’oeuvres, and listen to grateful but stilted speeches by administrators who owe their rent money to the people in the room.
But the lucky few patrons who paid at least $100 a piece to go to last Monday’s Morris Cafritz Center for the Arts Benefit got more than their money’s worth. Patrons were treated to a 2 hour (plus a post-event dessert table and book signing) extravaganza celebration of Tony Kushner and his work. Most fantastically of all, the man himself was there, not just in attendance but onstage talking with Molly Smith (Artistic Director of Arena Stage) about his life and work.
The event was a fascinating look into Tony Kushner the man and the artist, not only from Molly Smith’s incisive interview, but also with readings of Mr. Kushner’s work by some brilliant local actors. The evening was bookended by Felicia Curry’s heart-wrenching performances of songs from the Broadway musical Caroline, or Change for which Mr. Kushner wrote the lyrics. The event also revisited some of Mr. Kushner’s straight play work, with local luminaries Brigid Cleary and Rick Foucheux performing monologues from their original roles in Homebody/Kabul which was co-produced by Theater J and Woolly Mammoth in 2004. The excerpts from that play typify Mr. Kushner’s work: funny but tragically sad, meanderingly garrulous, and deeply entwining the political and the personal. Ms. Cleary and Mr. Foucheux’s explosive performances of such great work makes me wonder if it isn’t time for a DC area revival of Homebody/Kabul.
But the real treat of the evening was listening to Mr. Kushner’s conversation with Ms. Smith. He talked about growing up in Lake Charles, Louisiana as the son of two concert-level musicians from New York whose money troubles forced a move to the South to work for his grandfather’s lumber company. Growing up in a small community of Jews in the South with a liberal mother and a father who had a prolific love of poetry (Tony and his siblings were paid a dollar for each poem they could memorize) during the Civil Rights movement seriously shaped the artist and man that Mr. Kushner is today.
His introduction to theater was through his mother, who broke from the local community theater over their banning of Death of a Salesman as a “dirty play written by a communist.” An idea which, as Mr. Kushner pointed out, must have been pulled from the ether, as it is neither a particularly vulgar play, nor was Arthur Miller a communist. His first true theatrical inspiration came from watching his mother play Linda Loman in that play, and because it was staged in the round, watching the not-yet-waterproofed mascara run down the face of a family friend during the famous cemetery scene.
Politics, which would come to shape so many of his plays, played a significant role in his early life as well. Mr. Kushner revealed that dinner table conversations (or arguments) in the Kushner house often centered on politics, which may explain the root of his gripping, argumentative plays. At 16, he campaigned boldly for George McGovern (with his only compatriots being two nuns) in southern Louisiana, extracting donations from “racist half-wits” before Nixon’s Southern Strategy helped them realize their “true political home.” He even leafleted a Klan rally, sticking McGovern pamphlets under the windshield wipers of Klansmen’s pickup trucks. Talk about a mentsh with beytsim!
He also gave some insight into some more contemporary details of his artistic process. He spoke specifically about Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures which opens tonight at Theater J. The impetus of the play comes from what Mr. Kushner calls an “id fragment,” which was performed at the benefit by Lou Liberatore, that describes a neurotic author writing an impossible-to-finish novel into which he pours his entire life. While the content of the fragment doesn’t describe current content of the play, the layered intellectual concepts and neurotic tone have apparently remained.
Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide… only came into being as a play when Joe Dowling (head of the Guthrie in Minneapolis) asked Mr. Kushner to write a new play as a part of a festival of his works. Mr. Kushner agreed without having written a single word, as he was working on Lincoln with Steven Spielberg at the time. Lincoln ended up being a much larger project than anticipated, so Mr. Kushner wrote Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide while in rehearsal. Which means that the play was being cast and designed without a script!
For the text and theme of the play, he drew inspiration from one of the current events of that time, the strike of the Stagehand’s Union. When Mr. Kushner went to an emergency Dramatist’s Guild meeting, he was appalled that at least one unnamed playwright stood up and objected to the strike, blaming unions for the stoppage rather than owners. From a group of generally liberal-minded individuals, the most shocking thing for Mr. Kushner was that the union-busting influence of Ronald Reagan had trickled down to these artists. In this context, he wrote a play about an aging Communist union organizer depressed over the state of labor in America
Interestingly, while Mr. Kushner describes his writing process as a constant avoidance of writing, once he gets writing he becomes quite prolific. Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide runs nearly four hours, and much of that time contains densely overlapping conversations, creating a huge flood of content.
The bounty of his writing was most evident in the anecdote he told about the writing of Lincoln. After a significant amount of research, Mr. Kushner determined that the film should cover the last four months of Lincoln’s life, starting with the lead up to the passage of the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery. After writing that portion of the film, he sent it to Steven Spielberg who said, “This is the film,” meaning that the fight over the 13th Amendment in the House of Representatives would be the eventual focus of the film. Mr. Kushner was unconvinced and kept writing, producing a 500+ page film script covering the whole 4 months! Screenplays, even for long films, usually only run 120-130 pages. Eventually, Mr. Spielberg decided that his gut instinct was correct and he made the Oscar-nominated film we know today that focused on the passage of the 13th Amendment.
The collaboration between Mr. Kushner and Mr. Spielberg, begun with Oscar-nominated Munich, may be one for the ages, especially considering their new project together. The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara is their next collaboration, which Mr. Kushner is currently writing. It tells the true story, based on a David Kertzer historical novel, of a Jewish boy kidnapped in the 19th century by the Vatican and raised by Pope Pius IX. Mr. Kushner described the setting as incredibly complicated, but one that he is excited about. When he first read the novel, he “sat down in a chair and didn’t get up for 8 hours until he had finished the book.” Add this project to the ones he is working on currently, including a secretive new project starring How to Get Away With Murder’s Viola Davis and writing the second act of a new musical about the death of Eugene O’Neill (of which he says “Talk about Oedipal! Die, Daddy, die!”), we’re going to be treated to much incredible work from Mr. Kushner for years to come.
When I was asked to cover this Benefit, I had no idea that the patrons would be treated to such an in-depth and personal look into Tony Kushner’s work and life. Theater J really pulled out the stops for this benefit to create a stirring, engaging, and stimulating evening for theater-lovers. The next time you see a chance to go to one of their benefits, don’t balk at the price, because they put on a really great show.
Tony Kushner’s Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures, directed by John Vreeke and featuring Josh Adams, Rena Cherry Brown, Jenifer Deal, Tim Getman, Lisa Hodsoll, Lou Liberatore, Susan Rome, Sue Jin Song, James Whalen, Tom Wiggin and Michael Anthony Williams. Runs November 13 to December 21, 2014 at Theater J.
Details and tickets