Tony Kushner, Upper West Side Oracle

IN ACT III, Scene 2 of “Millennium Approaches,” Louis asks, “Why has democracy been successful in America? It’s not exactly a rhetorical...


IN ACT III, Scene 2 of “Millennium Approaches,” Louis asks, “Why has democracy been successful in America? It’s not exactly a rhetorical question, and Louis’ rambling attempt to answer it isn’t entirely convincing, certainly not for his friend Belize, a black and gay nurse who cares for men dying of illnesses. AIDS-related and who has a keen sense of the failures and compromises of the American experience. (Louis’ monologue only ends when Belize, after trying to participate in the debate, finally responds, “POWER to the people! AMEN! … OH MY GOOD! Look at the time, I must. … “)

When we meet in Central Park for a second conversation (with no surprise appearances from great filmmakers), I tell Kushner that I think the dispute between Louis and Belize – a defense of good intentions and progressive tendencies countered by an emphasis on hard structural facts of exclusion, oppression and hatred – is still going on, perhaps with more intensity and harsher feelings than before.

We talk about this for a while, and also about how the censorship of the left is not symmetrical with the authoritarianism of the right, of what Kushner calls “the radical impatience of the young”, of Twitter and TikTok and from the beginning of the 20th century German playwright Bertolt Brecht, a hero of Kushner, who once said, “Don’t start with the good old things, but with the bad news. We agree more than we disagree, but the conversation nonetheless has an invigorating and combative energy.

Kushner’s directing and screenwriting consists of a lot of family feuds, heated debates between people who are basically on the same side. Louis and Belize not only share their love for Prior, Louis’ former lover, whom they fear will die of complications from AIDS, but also a wary and strange kinship in New York. In “Lincoln,” much of the dramatic conflict takes place within Cabinet, Congress, and the Republican Party, people committed at least in principle to the defense of the union and the abolition of slavery. In “Carolina or Change”, the position of southern white supremacy is represented by this silent statue; the Gellmans are strangers, some of whom imagine themselves to be on the angelic side of the story. Kushner’s ability to spark these family feuds within liberalism – their infinity, their passion – may ultimately be what sets him apart as a great New York voice. It’s the music of the city, after all. It is also the music of democracy, the soundtrack of the perpetually besieged American experience.

Which is in a scary place right now. Finally, Kushner jokes that Louis’ rhetorical question might need to be changed or removed altogether. Democracy may not succeed in America, and the big argument that links President Lincoln to Caroline Thibodeaux could point to a deadly rumble from the Jets and Sharks.

Neutrality, for Kushner, is never an option. “I’m always annoyed when people talk about theater that preaches to converts,” he says. “It’s so stupid. Who do you think you will find in your synagogue? … When I teach drama writing, I always tell my students – and it’s almost impossible to do this particular thing without having some sort of ghost audience in your head – that you should work really hard to populate it. audience of people who basically agree with you about certain things. Because if you don’t, then you start from a position of needing to educate them on what you already know, which I think guarantees didacticism and some monotony. The place you want to start is those big arguments you have with your friends. “

What you want to do, in other words, is to dare to participate in the great historical error of your time.

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