Pulitzer-winning Tony Kushner visits UI


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Tony Kushner gave himself until the age of 30 to start making a living in the theater. If he didn’t make that goal, he told himself, he would explore a different career path.

Now 53 years old, he sat in front of an audience on Tuesday evening in the IMU Main Lounge and responded candidly to questions posed by former University Lecture Committee member and UI alumna Kelly Johnson. He spoke about Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes, the two-part, Pulitzer-Prize-winning epic play he’s best known for and that’s been lauded by many as one of the most defining plays of the 20th century.

Kushner opened his visit by first praising the Iowa Supreme Court for its 2009 ruling to legalize gay marriage, then launched into a reading of “A Prayer for New York,” a short work he was asked to write by the New York Times for the fourth anniversary of Sept. 11, 2001.

Though he wrote Angels in America during the Reagan administration 20 years ago, the play continues to find relevance today; it will experience a revival on New York City’s Signature Theatre stage this fall.

“I was afraid it’d be an artifact, and it hasn’t felt that way yet,” Kushner said.

Though his work feels powerful and outspoken, he said his characters aren’t vessels for any one message.

“I don’t think that the real power of plays is necessarily confronting an audience or shocking an audience or scandalizing an audience,” he said.

Alan MacVey, the director of the UI Division of Performing Arts, said what sets Kushner apart from other contemporary playwrights is his “ability to embody those concerns in characters that are fully human, richly drawn and believable, not just mouthpieces for a point of view.”

Kushner said he wants for his audience the same thing he wants for himself when writing a play: to start at the beginning with uncertainty, examine contemporary beliefs throughout, and arrive with new contemplations at the end.

Originally meant to be a two-hour play, Angels is a seven hour-long drama that raises as many questions of personal identity as it does about the AIDS pandemic and gay rights.

Kushner said he knows a play is done when he can watch an audience experience a revelatory moment together.

“You get to a point where you just say, ‘OK, maybe somebody else can make this better, but I can’t. I don’t know how to improve this; it’s as good as I can make it,’ ” he said. “And then you kind of know to leave it alone.”

Lecture Committee head Alex Metcalf recalled reading Kushner’s work and the reactions it received from an Interpretation of Literature class.

“From shock to empathy to laughter, the variance in people’s reactions really stuck out in my mind,” he said.

MacVey said he has kept a kind of souvenir from Kushner’s time as a guest artist at the UI in the early 1990s — an in-progress manuscript of Angels.

“As soon as I read, it I knew it would be one of the most important plays of the last 50 years,” he said.

Making the audience laugh repeatedly during his talk last night, Kushner’s attitude reflected on his special ability as a playwright to tackle hot topics head on, without sounding combative.

“I really hope I die before Angels becomes something nobody wants to look at,” he said. “Let’s just hope that isn’t next year.”

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