The “Lincoln” and “Angels in America” writer appears as part of the Jewish Literature Live series.
By Brittney Dunkins
Tony Kushner, famed writer behind Academy Award best picture nominee “Lincoln” and Pulitzer Prize-winning play “Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes,” offered insight into his career, writing process, controversy and the future of American theater, in a dialogue with Ari Roth, artistic director at Theatre J, on Tuesday.
Students, faculty and members of the D.C. community filled the Jack Morton Auditorium for the conversation, a culmination of classes, performances and lectures on Mr. Kushner’s work, presented by the Jewish Literature Live Series.
“This is a gift you’ve given, coming here today,” Mr. Roth said, after Mr. Kushner opened the program with a heartfelt and humorous reading of “A Prayer for New York,” originally written for “Rebirth at Ground Zero” a one-time live performance hosted by “The New York Times” and styled as a “revival meeting” in 2004.
Mr. Kushner, a graduate of Columbia University is perhaps best known for “Angels in America,” a two-part play that explores the AIDS epidemic in the U.S. in the late ’80s. In 2003, the play was adapted into a critically acclaimed miniseries for HBO.
His more than 15 works include the musical “Caroline or Change,” “A Bright Room Called Day,” “The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism & Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures” and more, including a number of books and screenplays.
Mr. Kushner has earned many accolades, including a Pulitzer Prize for Drama, an Emmy Award, two Tony Awards, three Obie Awards, the Cultural Achievement Award from the National Foundation for Jewish Culture and an Oscar nomination.
Most recently, he received critical acclaim for the film “Lincoln,” directed by Steven Spielberg. The screenplay, which Mr. Kushner said was written for “a movie about government and the democratic process,” took seven years to write.
The film, which focuses on the lame duck session of Congress that passed the 13th Amendment, was the subject of some controversy during the Academy Awards season due to liberties taken by Mr. Kushner and Mr. Spielberg, such as renaming senators involved and the order in which they voted.
Mr. Kushner spoke at length about the controversy, citing the audience’s awareness that the film is partially fiction and a trust in his ability as the writer to determine what is consequential to the retelling.
“Historical fiction is trying to do exactly what history can’t do,” he said.
Mr. Kushner, who considers himself a playwright above all else, despite writing screenplays for two films, “Munich” and “Lincoln,” and for “Angels in America,” also expressed faith in the future of the American theater.
According to Kushner, film’s ability to present a flawless spectacle through technological advances can sometimes detract from the message of the material, whereas the theater, with all of its pulleys and strings showing, allows the audience to detach from the drama on stage and critically engage with the material.
“We will always need the unsuccessful illusion of the theatre,” he said. “It teaches critical consciousness.”
Professor Faye Moskowitz teaches the Jewish Literature Live series presented by the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences. For the last five years the program has connected students with contemporary Jewish writers.
The 2013 series included authors Lisa Zeidner, Jami Attenberg, Bruce Jay Friedman and David Bezmosgis.
The final Jewish Literature Live event of the semester will be held on April 25 and will feature Nathan Englander, the author of “What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank. “