Ladies and gentlemen, meet Tony Kushner. Since the breakthrough in the early 1990s of his two-part epic, Angels in America — subsequently made into a hit miniseries — Kushner has emerged as one of the country’s leading playwrights. With his cutting wit and penchant for uncomfortable opinions, Kushner has earned a Pulitzer, an Emmy and two Tony Awards — and a reputation that runs the gamut from charming to demanding to unpredictable.
Yet the man portrayed in Wrestling with Angels: Playwright Tony Kushner is resolutely upbeat, productive, at ease with himself and tender with family and friends. Kushner can even be described as amazingly relaxed for someone whose days are a blur of disparate activities united by his drive both to “speak the truth” and to succeed as an artist — never mind being a gay progressive who grew up in the South.
As she demonstrated in her 1996 Oscar-winning POV film Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision (about the designer of the Vietnam Memorial), director Freida Lee Mock has a natural feel for the world of artists. In “Wrestling with Angels,” she includes extended performances and readings from Kushner’s plays and musicals with appearances and commentary from such theatrical lights as actresses Marcia Gay Harden, Meryl Streep, Emma Thompson and Tonya Pinkins, directors Mike Nichols, George C. Wolfe and Oskar Eustis, and writer/artist Maurice Sendak.
Mock tells Kushner’s story in a three-act-with-epilogue structure that opens not at the beginning, nor with the play that made Kushner a force to reckon with. Rather, in Act 1, “Citizen of the World,” she begins with Kushner today — a whirlwind of speech giving, panel-sitting, demonstrating, writing, and weathering the premiere and mixed reviews accorded his then-newest work, Homebody/Kabul.
Mock’s approach creates a dramatic perspective. Wrestling with Angels, is more than a retrospective account of a powerful play and its impact. It is a portrait in motion of a passionate, introspective artist and energetic political activist whose work continues to unfold.
In Act 1, vérité slices of Kushner’s public life frame the behind-the-scenes drama of Homebody/Kabul, written before 9/11 and staged after. Aside from 9/11’s impact on Kushner, a New Yorker by choice, the event revealed the new play’s prescience while also throwing it into a more challenging light. Kushner’s spirits soar as the premiere approaches and he anticipates great success. Despite a few raves, however, reaction is mixed, and Kushner experiences the reverse of the previous day’s soaring expectations. Collaborators and friends convince him to persevere with the play, which went on to London, Los Angeles, Seattle and Berkeley.
Act 2, “Mama, I’m a Homosexual, Mama,” takes us back to the beginning, to the Deep South district of Lake Charles, Louisiana. By his own account, Kushner had a happy childhood, nurtured by musician parents and surrounded by artistic siblings. Nor does he seem to have suffered much for growing up Jewish in the South. But this typical — if unusually artistic and liberal — suburban upbringing was shadowed by an early recognition by both son and father that the former might be gay. And for all the liberal environment of the household, both father and son, in their own ways, struggled with the boy’s homosexuality. When Kushner was at Columbia — studying with internationally renowned director/writer Carl Weber — his father, Bill, wrote him that if he were Tchaikovsky’s father, he couldn’t be proud because Tchaikovsky was a gay. When Kushner came out to his mother, she “cried for six months until I finally said, ‘I’m beginning to feel like you are mourning somebody,'” he says.
Act 2 also takes us through Kushner’s early artistic development, including his fortuitous encounter with Oskar Eustis, now director of New York’s renowned Public Theater and then director of San Francisco’s Eureka Theater, who commissioned Kushner to write the play that became the seven-hour epic Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes, which premiered in May 1991 at the Eureka and went to Broadway in 1993.
Act 3, “Collective Action to Overcome Injustice,” resumes with Kushner in full stride in 2003 and 2004, breaking into musical theater in typically untypical ways. The film provides a snapshot of Kushner’s collaboration with acclaimed children’s writer and illustrator Maurice Sendak. They take on an unlikely musical project, the chilling Brundibar, which recalls a play staged by the Nazis at the infamous Theresienstadt concentration camp in Czechoslovakia for propaganda purposes, featuring dozens of Jewish children shortly destined for the gas chambers. In a particularly touching moment, Ela Weissberger, one of the children who survived, expresses her gratitude. We are also brought into the creative process and ambitions behind Kushner’s 2003 Broadway musical, Caroline, or Change, the autobiographical story of a young boy’s relationship with the black maid (played by Tonya Pinkins) working for his Southern Jewish family at the height of the Civil Rights era, directed by George C. Wolfe.
The epilogue to Wrestling with Angels is entitled “Action Can Change the Course of Things,” a resolute coda for a man who feels the artist has “an ethical obligation not to despair, to look for hope,” as he explains to students at Southwestern University in Georgetown, Texas, nine days before the 2004 presidential election. It also explains an artist who, despite obsessing over themes as uncomfortable as war, race, class conflict, AIDS, gay and lesbian rights, and genocide, struggles to reach — and believes he can reach — a popular audience.
“The time frame of Wrestling with Angels, during which I essentially stalked him all over the country, was immensely active for Kushner, with the production of new plays, books, master classes and community work,” says director Mock. “These activities are the building blocks through which the audience will come, I hope, to understand not only Kushner’s artistry, but the creative process in general and the difference one artist can make in inspiring us to engage the moral and political issues of our times.”