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The Daily Need

A portrait of the intellectual as a young woman

A scene from "Sontag: Reborn," running January 4-15 at The Public Theater as part of the Under the Radar Festival. Photo: James Gibbs.

Being called an intellectual in the U.S. is tricky business. In recent years, the word has become akin to a slur – just ask “Professor” Barack Obama. So it’s remarkable that such an undeniably esoteric thinker and writer like Susan Sontag achieved the celebrity status that she did in her lifetime. For many, Sontag’s role as a public intellectual advanced the conversation about taboo topics like AIDS, homosexuality and war. In her seminal “AIDS and Its Metaphors,” Sontag examined how military metaphors distorted the experiences of people suffering from the disease.

This month, her life and work take center stage in “Sontag: Reborn,” which is one of the star attractions of this year’s Under the Radar theater festival in New York City. Adapted and performed by Moe Angelos and directed by Marianne Weems, “Sontag: Reborn is a portrait of the intellectual as a young woman. The play is adapted from the first volume of Sontag’s recently published private journals, which were edited by her son David Reiff. The play spans the years of 1947 to 1963, and opens when Sontag is just 16 years old.

The significance of learning about the unknown Sontag is that we see the evolution of a young woman with ambitions that were out of step with her times. Angelos’ Sontag sits at a desk piled high with the classics — Gide, Tolstoy, Mann — as she furiously writes in her journal with a seriousness that would later become her trademark.

Sontag’s journals chronicle her conscious break with conventional life and early embrace of independent thought: Mixed in with the ruminations of a precocious 16-year-old nervously leaving home to study at UC Berkeley are more adventurous chronicles of solo travels around Europe, as well as her early lesbian affairs. “She’s talking about understanding her sexuality with a woman,” says theater artist Angelos. “She understands it is good and right to love.”

Angelos says that it may be more difficult for a critical and serious thinker like Sontag to emerge in today’s culture. “The public’s acceptance of intellect seems to ebb and flow in this country over the decades,” she says. “It is a very chilly world out there now for intellectuals and feminists.” And unlike a country like, say, France, where the culture of the intellectual still thrives, “our ambitions here [in the U.S.] are success driven in another way.”

Sontag’s legacy of serious inquiry stands in sharp contrast to the culture of spin that has come to characterize so much of our current political discourse. “Part of her gift was the ability to pay attention,” says Angelos. “She was a very serious person and raised seriousness to which we could aspire.”

The Under the Radar Festival runs through January 15.