I am the kind of person who once went up to Tony Kushner on a street, introduced myself, and started to cry while telling him how much his work meant to me, so take all that follows with this in mind. But now that President Obama is going to give Kushner a National Medal of Arts “for his contributions to American theater and film. Whether for the stage or the silver screen, his scripts have moved audiences worldwide, marrying humor to fury, history to fantasy, and the philosophical to the personal,” as the official citation puts it, I think it’s important to remember Kushner as more than the author of Angels In America. As much as I adore the two plays that make up that magnificent work, they’re hardly all that Kushner’s ever done, and for anyone who’s inspired by his sharp political sensibilities, it’s worth reading him on a wider range of issues. Here are my favorite of Kushner’s non-Angels works.
1. Reverse Transcription: As the Voice of the Playwright, who provides this narration for a story about six playwrights who have come to bury a seventh on Abel’s Hill in Martha’s Vineyard, puts it “Seven characters are too many for a ten-minute play. It’ll be twenty minutes long! Fuck it. One of them is dead and the others can all talk fast.” But oh, what Kushner packs into those twenty minutes, as the playwrights of varying levels of success and sold-outness debate everything from Rwanda, whether they’re breaking the law by smuggling their dead friend into the cemetery, the disparity in their incomes, Jesse Helms, Bosnia, exile, HIV and Hebrew, what distinguishes British playwrights from American ones, and what’s worse, poverty or obscurity. It’s a brilliant exercise in giving your characters a lot of humanity very fast, and a terrific discussion of the economics of being an artist.
2. Homebody/Kabul: Kushner’s play about Afghanistan was timely in an accidental way when it was first performed in New York in December, 2001, shortly after the attacks on the World Trade Center. But its exploration of the West’s fascination with Afghanistan is decidedly, beautifully idiosyncratic. The first act of the play is a nearly hour-long monologue by a housewife known as the Homebody who, wrenching herself from a routine of pharmacology that’s dulled her brain and suffocated her marriage, heads off for Kabul at the end of a long discussion of her life and Afghanistan’s history. After she vanishes, her husband and daughter head off in search of her, and meet up with a British civil servant and a furious war widow. It’s not a play with policy solutions, but as usual, it’s a fascinating meditation on our myths and what they mean to us, and what we do to other people when we head off in search of ourselves.
3. East Coast Ode To Howard Jarvis: Jarvis is the man most directly responsible for the passage of Proposition 13, the property tax initiative that tied property tax assessments to their 1975 values and prevented California from raising taxes more than 2 percent a year, dramatically limiting the state’s ability to raise revenues from that stream, and required a two-thirds majority in both houses of the California legislature to raise taxes, including income taxes. Kushner didn’t take aim at him, directly, but rather wrote this one-man show in which the actor in question plays a whole range of characters, many of them New York City public workers, who got involved in a scheme to avoid paying income taxes. It’s incredibly sharp and funny, and it’s a clear-eyed look at precisely why movements like the Tea Party have such widespread appeal.
4. Brundibar: An adaptation of a Czech opera about brave children who stand up to an evil organ grinder that was performed by actual children interned in the Theresienstadt Ghetto, Brundibar, on which Kushner collaborated with the late, great Maurice Sendak, is fascinating not least because it’s intriguing to see Kushner, who is so gifted at making his politics brilliantly overt, go covert. If you can see the opera performed with Sendak’s set designs, it’s worthwhile. But if not, they produced a corresponding children’s book that’s well worth checking out.