Culture, Justice, Sex & Gender

The art of risk-taking: A look at Kushner's new film and ceremonies

crossposted from JVoices
A few weeks ago, on a whim I met up with a friend to go see a movie. It had been one of those long days where the idea of sinking into the comfort of surround sound and chocolate was the perfect combination, and I was intrigued by the bit I had heard about a new film about Tony Kushner called Wrestling with Angels. So I headed over to the Film Forum, a theatre after my own heart (they serve peanut butter chocolate chip cookies–that’s all I’m saying) and settled in (watch the trailer here). I had heard bits that it was a film about him growing up, about his sexuality and how it influenced him as an artist–the film turned out to be so much more. I knew of Tony’s work, particularly of Angels in America, but I had no idea of the depth and breadth of the amazing artistry, history and theatre that he has been apart of making in the United States, nor his humility.
What I didn’t know was how much I needed this film.
Some know that I recently started graduate school–more specifically an MFA program in Creative Writing for Poetry. I knew I needed to catapult myself forward, and the changes have been a fresh and needed start. But I have still known this block, this only to be whispered and shared alone, block that some artists have, which is the fear that the work isn’t useful. Particularly for those of us who have been “raised” in organizing and activism, even though we have seeked and attained inspiration, energy and wisdom from the arts, sometimes it is still hard to see ourselves as valuable in producing them. This has been a struggle of my own.
So I thank the producers of this film on this personal level, for opening up to “the world” the very prolific, passionate and humbling man, and I thank them for creating this history. This film, along with attending the 10th Anniversary of Cave Canem‘s celebrations, reminded me, or should I say thoroughly shook me, to do the work I am meant to do.
The film was broken into three “acts”, Act I — As a Citizen of the World; Act II — Mama, I’m a Homosexual Mama and Act III — Collective Action to Overcome Injustice. All of the acts demonstrate how he came and chose to produce work, providing a forum for addressing some of the most critical issues of our time–HIV/AIDS, war, race, sexuality, class and Israel and Palestine.
The last act, in particular, reveals the influence of Kushner’s Jewish heritage in his passionate concern for social justice, expressed in deeply personal terms. It is also this act that made me even more proud that JFREJ will be honoring Tony Kusher, along with Grace Paley and the Transport Workers Union Local 100, this November 16th for the 10th annual Marshall T. Meyer Risk-Taker Awards. From the scenes showing the reproduction of the children’s holocaust opera Brundibar to the musical Caroline, or Change–about domestic work and the choices no woman should have to make to live—Kushner pushes all of us to be our best selves. Indeed, he is in good company, with Grace Paley by his side, and the local union which demonstrated its power to all of New York last winter.
We are living in daunting times. I hear this from those who have lived and worked and fought for many more years than I, and I say this even as we may be seeing a Congressional shift in power after November 7th, for I know that electoral politics and change are only one part of the many changes we need to effect larger systemic and societal change.
Knowing this film, knowing the work of artists in keeping us alive, has become, dare I say, a benediction–a lesson in faith. The kind of faith that some who don’t believe in god can believe in, the kind of faith and guidance that may not make it all right, but is a balance, as we take our steps forward in the world–and sometimes even gives us the strength to leap–to dare I say, move in the risk, in the art of risking for change.
I am so unbelievably grateful for the presence of these artists, and am honored that I will be able to bear witness to their honoring. I hope many of you will be able to join me.

10 thoughts on “The art of risk-taking: A look at Kushner's new film and ceremonies

  1. word.
    and tony kushner will be speaking here in san francisco in march at the JCC, i can tell you that tickets will probably sell out within the next few weeks so jump on it. i’ll be there.
    kushner is a genius. i am so proud to be able to have seen everything he’s ever written staged, and i am blown away, over and over, at his eloquence in the face of so much misdirected hostility.

  2. JFREJ is honoring the Transit Union? Are they that desperate to appear controversial? JFREJ is the biggest laughing stock of Jewish Community’s Leftwing. (Outside of the die-in folk, in the off-chance this is a different population).

  3. Hey DK, no need to be mean. If you don’t want to attend the event, just don’t go. I’m not involved with JFREJ, but I must tell you, I am really proud of the work they do. Along with PJA in LA, JUFJ in DC, and the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs, JFREJ is doing wonderful local activism. I’m much more proud of these organisations, who are connecting to local communities in order to persue justice, than I am of any synogagues, federations, or even JCRCs.

  4. The TWU should NOT be honored. Anyone who takes a job working for the city governmnet in NYC knows that it is illegal to strike. It doesn’t matter if you think your pay or work conditions are bad. When you take that kind of job, going into it immediately you know that striking is not an option unless you want to serve hard time. If you don’t like that deal then go work somewhere else. No one holds a gun to anybody’s head when people take these jobs. In return for not having the ability to strike NYC govt gives TWU and other unions of city employees the right to settle contract disputes with arbitration and collective bargaining. And they also get very sweet deals on their health insurance packages. Many private sector people wish they had such deals. If you were one of the hundreds of thousands of people, including the people who you might think would be sympathetic to the conditions of the TWU, the poor, working class, women, eldery, who had to walk, hitchike or bike miles to get to work in the cold and dark of winter when they were on strike last year, you very likely thought all the TWU people should be in jail too. Last year I thought it was a miracle from God that all things considered it wasn’t as cold as it could have been when the TWU struck in December. It’s amazing more people didn’t drop dead. And this is what in the memory of R. Meyer gets honored? Very sad.

  5. DK said: “JFREJ is the biggest laughing stock of Jewish Community’s Leftwing.”
    Do you want to qualify that? It’s always fun to play provocateur, but sometimes you actually have to back up sweeping statements.

  6. DK, I don’t quite see how your personal vitriol in any way signifies JFREJ being the “laughing stock of Jewish Community’s Leftwing.” You have your issues. I, personally, think your post about JFREJ demonstrates a lack of engaging in any real way with the work JFREJ does, especially the work that it does in partnership with other organizations. Whether we have college degrees or not, whether or not we are white, whether or not we are middle class (and way to wrongly assume the color, economic, and educational background of all JFREJ members), we’re getting shit done. You work in a working class industry? Good for you. Then you’ll understand how important it is for those with and without systemic power to work together to make change. JFREJ makes that possible. Your specific criticism about the Marshall Awards aside (and those arguments might be interesting), the rest of your critique seems to be full of baseless anger.

  7. Saltyfemme,
    I have no interest –at all — in working with those who glorify and award those who chose to harm this city so terribly, including those of every class, but particularly workers, and harming the reputation of unions generally, and disobeying their own more responsible parent union. None! While JFREJ has taken on important projects (on occasion), they have also have a penchant for absurd projects and causes. They seem all too concerned with being the voice of the far-Left, more than they do about justice, and this has been a complaint even from those further Left than myself.
    JFREJ has every right to stand behind whatever and whomever they want, but they have no right to pretend that they are in any way the voice of the Jewish worker, unionized or otherwise.

  8. I want to add a bit of context here that I think is important and in speaks to some of DK’s post about Kushner not needing JFREJ’s honor. To say that really is to misunderstand that Kushner is a part of JFREJ–he has long been a supporter of JFREJ and an integral part of the organization–he was a previous board member, a long-standing active member who’s gotten arrested with other JFREJ member’s for actions against police brutality and most recently one of the main co-signatories of the national immigrant rights petition circulated last spring. As such, I think it makes even more sense to honor him in the 10th annual celebration.
    And I think it makes sense in honor of Meyer.
    A recent piece I read about Meyer:
    In a speech a Dartmouth, just a couple years before his death, called “Why and How to Be and Activist,” Marshall Meyer said, after talking about his days protesting the disappearance of daughters and sons under Argentina’s military junta, “You don’t have to know how to speak, you have to know how to act!…Let it come with a price! Pay for it!”
    These are risk-taker awards–they celebrate people and organizations who have taken risks which means they often celebrate people who have challenged us as individuals and as a society in ways that may make us uncomfortable. They may even make some furious. The point is that they have taken risks to make the world better, and each and everyone one of the honorees have done this in ways that include breaking the law in recognition that the government’s rules and laws are not always just. Laws are sometimes meant to be broken. The union is no different in this–whether you agree or disagree with the risks the union took, they decided to strike and to say that the government’s rule that the union could not strike was not right. This embodies the very essence of risk-taking, of acting and knowing that action comes with a price.
    The fact that JFREJ honors risk-takers for their largest fundraiser of the year is in-and-of-itself, an act of faith in change, and of very much taking risks in honoring people and organizations that some see as controversial.
    I, for one, commend the organization, and the honorees, for not just talking about, but being the change we want to see–for acting, and honoring people who take risks to make all of us better–for forcing all of us to be uncomfortable. For more often than not, if we are comfortable in these daunting times, then something is terribly wrong.

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