Tony Kushner mixes wit, modesty

Pulitzer prize-winning playwright Tony Kushner cringed visibly when he realized he was in a room with 20 people who’d read “Tony Kushner in Conversation,” a thick book of interviews, in its entirety.

“Oh, that accursed volume!” he moaned. “I know I haven’t said 50 pages of interesting things, so I have no idea what’s in there.”

With that characteristically self-deprecating comment, Kushner’s two-day visit to campus was off and running.

Kushner is best known for “Angels in America,” his seven-hour play dealing with homosexuality, AIDS and Reaganism. He came to Penn through the Kelly Writers House Fellows program, which brings accomplished writers to campus to meet with an undergraduate seminar which has read and discussed the writers’ works — hence the 20 “Conversation” readers — plus other people from Penn and beyond.

On Feb. 12, more than 100 Kushner fans heard him read from his newest play, “Home/body Kabul,” which is about Afghanistan. “Every square inch of the Writers House was filled with an edge-of-seat listener,” said English Professor and Writers House Faculty Director Al Filreis.

Filreis leads the undergraduate seminar whose students got the grand prize — a three-hour class with Kushner himself.

In class, students asked the playwright questions that ranged from “Can you talk about what you were trying to do in ‘Hydriotaphia?’” to “What fuels you as a writer?”
Answer: “Neurosis and terror.”

Kushner, a gay socialist, spoke as much about politics as his writing. He later turned his wit loose on Al Gore — “a semi-animated plank of wood.” Then he called Esquire “a fake-butch magazine that lets men look at underwear ads.” And the hapless Tim Donza (C’02), a gay Republican, found himself in a 20-minute political argument with Kushner during break.

When the seminar reconvened, Kushner said to Donza, “You can go back [to your old seat] if you want.” Donza, now seated to his left and slightly behind him, quipped, “I’d rather be in your blind spot.”

Three of the seminar students dined that night with Kushner and other professors and students. Brenner Thomas (C’02), one of the three, said, “After we got our heads around the fact that we were in a intimate setting with Tony, conversation took off and didn’t pause until well after 11 p.m.”

On the morning of Feb. 13, a smaller audience filled the front room at the Writers House for a Webcast question-and-answer session. An insurance company employee in Hartford, Conn., e-mailed a question for Kushner: “What should we read or act out with our lovers on Valentine’s Day?”

Kant’s Towards a Metaphysics of Morals, he replied. “For me, reading tough books is incredibly sexy.”


Originally published on March 1, 2001