Who is Tony Kushner, and why is the Guthrie Theater devoting two months to a “celebration” of him?
We’re about to find out.
The “celebration,” which kicks off Saturday with Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak declaring “Tony Kushner Day,” includes Kushner plays on all three Guthrie stages — plus a plethora of seminars, classes and workshops and two “Extreme Kushner Weekends” that involve marathon theater packages and additional Kushner-related events.
Why Tony Kushner?
“He is, without question, the pre-eminent American playwright of our generation,” declares Jo Holcomb, whose 13 years as a Guthrie dramaturg means she is very familiar with names like Albee, Mamet, Shepard and other living giants.
Awards galore: Pulitzer, an Emmy, two Tonys and more
But to local theatergoers, Kushner’s name doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue. That’s despite the fact that he’s the recipient of a Pulitzer Prize, an Emmy Award, two Tony Awards, three Obie Awards and an Oscar nomination.
Oh, sure, there’s “Angels in America,” Kushner’s 1992 two-part epic about AIDS in the era of America’s conservative counter-revolution. Minnesotans, for the most part, are familiar with the play from the HBO movie adaptation (the full title is “Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes”). But around here, Kushner just hasn’t gotten that much stage time.
Nonetheless, when ground was broken for the new Guthrie Theater back in 2003, Artistic Director Joe Dowling envisioned Kushner as part of a blockbuster plan to inaugurate the two main stages of the new complex. His plan: A new adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby” on the thrust stage to reflect the theater’s connections to Minnesota’s great writer, and a new play by Tony Kushner — the playwright of the new century, in Dowling’s opinion — on the stage of the Guthrie’s red-bedecked proscenium theater.
“Gatsby” came about, but the timing didn’t work for Kushner. “He wasn’t ready at that point to offer something to us, but it started the discussion,” Dowling said. Now the time has come.
And, indeed, the larger theater world will be watching when Kushner’s new play, commissioned by Dowling, opens next month in the Guthrie’s proscenium theater. Titled “The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures,” it’s probably the Guthrie’s biggest attention-getting effort since the theater premiered Arthur Miller’s “Resurrection Blues” back in 2002.
Dowling sees a direct connection. “Kushner is the worthy successor to Arthur Miller — a writer willing to challenge the status quo,” Dowling said. “He’s among a group of writers — Ibsen, Shaw, Miller — who see a role for themselves not only as storytellers but as strong advocates about the issues of their time.”
Shaw enthusiasts will see a wry reference in the title of Kushner’s new play — a variation on Shaw’s indictment of capitalism, “The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Socialism and Capitalism,” published in the 1920s. Not a lot has been disclosed about the new play, which centers on an Italian-American family in present-day Brooklyn. Initial rehearsals took place in New York while director Michael Grief finished work on a different Broadway show and the 11-member cast and director arrived in Minnesota this week for final rehearsals at the theater.
“I don’t know how much I can tell you about it,” said Holcomb, who is dramaturg for the play. “Right now it’s really a wonderful kind of work in progress.”
Polemicist and visionary
Like Shaw, Kushner is an engaging polemicist and, according to some, a visionary whose work carries impact. “Angels in America,” for example, is credited with changing the discussion about AIDS. Another of his plays, “Homebody/Kabul” was written before the Sept. 11, 2001, World Trade Center attack, yet seemed to presage an economic and social collision between East and West.
“He’s often been asked if he has premonitions, but that’s not it at all,” Holcomb said. “It’s a matter of being perceptive about what is going on in the world, along with knowledge of the history of the world. He’s an observer who knows how to connect the dots.”
While he can be called a polemicist, Kushner’s arguments are more often imbued with humanity and sensitivity to unforeseen consequences. Audiences should discover that in “Caroline, or Change,” a chamber opera Kushner wrote with composer Jeanine Tesori in 2003 that gets its first local production when the Guthrie launches the celebration this weekend
Highly autobiographical, “Caroline, or Change” is set in Kushner’s boyhood town of Lake Charles, La., in the early 1960s, and it involves the relationship between a young Jewish boy and the African-American housekeeper who cares for him. As with other Kushner plays, major events in American history — in this case, the civil rights movement and the Kennedy assassination — somehow resonate within a story about ordinary-seeming people.
And there are things fantastical amid the ordinary. Caroline, the black housekeeper, spends much of the day in the home’s basement, surrounded by household appliances and a radio.
“In isolation, she speaks to the appliances — and they speak back to her,” said Marcela Lorca, who is directing the play with a cast of mostly well-known local actors. Lorca, an expert in stage movement and choreography, says “Caroline, or Change” is an unusual kind of through-sung drama.
“It is based on a strong dramatic structure and has to be treated as a straight play,” she said. “But the actors are singing the entire time.”
In a New Yorker profile of Kushner, writer John Lahr identified Kushner’s ideological genius as an ability to persuade audiences to “identify with the marginalized.” Lorca expressed a similar assessment in our interview about “Caroline, or Change.”
“The engine of the story is about the relationships between characters in this particular family,” she said. “At the same time, you sense the wrongs of racism and classism, but there are no evil people in the play. The dark forces are the forces of society around them.”
How much has really changed since the 1960s? That’s the debate after the curtain falls, Lorca said.
For now, here’s a look at the details. The events taking place during the next two months can be divided into groups:
First, the plays
“Caroline, or Change” begins previews on Saturday and opens April 24. “The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures” begins previews on May 9 and opens May 15. “Tiny Kushner: An Evening of Short Plays,” opens to previews in the Dowling Studio on May 16 and officially opens May 20.
A related production is the University of Minnesota’s staging of Kushner’s first play, “A Bright Room Called Day,” which opens today in the Rarig Center complex on the university’s West Bank and runs through April 25.
Second, the events
To kick things off, Saturday’s activities include the mayor’s proclamation, along with a performance by the Twin Cities Gay Men’s Chorus of a new vocal work, “I Want More Life,” that was commissioned for the celebration. Composed by Michael Shaieb, the work uses text from “Angels in America.”
Those attending the kickoff, which starts at 11 a.m. Saturday, can get free tickets to watch a 4 p.m. screening of “Angels in America” at the Guthrie. There also will be drawings for free tickets to the upcoming stage shows and some special discounts to other performances. “Caroline, or Change” receives its first preview performance Saturday night.
Third, the lectures
Three major lectures are also scheduled during the celebration. On May 11, former New York Times critic Frank Rich will speak about the intersection of arts, culture and politics. On May 23 and 24, Lambda Legal executive Kevin M. Cathcart will talk about recent gay-rights issues. And on June 8, Kushner and Dowling will participate in a discussion of Kushner’s work.
“Extreme Kushner Weekends” are scheduled for May 22-24 and June 5-8. Seminars and workshops include a series of lectures by University of Minnesota professors, tours of the stages and back shops, pre- and post-play discussions and other activities.
David Hawley writes about classical music, theater and other arts.