Pulitzer Prize-winning Kushner talks literature and politics

The Syracuse University Lecture Series kicked-off its 2013-2014 season on Tuesday with Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, screenwriter and author Tony Kushner.

The Syracuse University Lecture Series kicked-off its 2013-2014 season on Tuesday with Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, screenwriter and author Tony Kushner.

Hendricks Chapel teemed with life as students and adults gathered to listen as Kal Alston, director of the University Lectures, sat down to have a conversation with Kushner. Kushner’s most recent work, the critically acclaimed film Lincoln, for which Kushner wrote the Academy Award-nominated screenplay, took center stage in the evening’s discussions.

Photo: Courtesy of SU Photo & Imaging Center
Award-winning author and playwright Tony Kushner shares his experiences with a Hendricks Chapel audience on Tuesday night. Joining him on stage is Kal Alston, SU's senior vice president for Human Capital Development.

Check out social media and live coverage from Kushner's talk

Lincoln, which tackles issues such as race and slavery, underscores Kushner’s penchant for taking on the bold and controversial. Kushner described at length the difficulty he had trying to portray slavery and its ramifications, noting that it was a tough subject to cover but he is “very excited people are tackling it.”

Kushner discussed a shift in the landscape of entertainment in which “certain topics that have never really been dealt with in a serious way are going to start to receive attention.”

While Kushner’s works were the centerpiece of the discussion, he also discussed politics and America’s current democratic landscape. When asked about the current government shutdown, Kushner remarked that Republicans in Congress were holding our government hostage.

“Democracy works except when you start to people who just work to dismantle our government,” said Kushner.

Kushner’s disdain for Conservative thought is nothing new. His epic Angels in America, for which he won the Pulitzer Prize for drama, is replete with contempt toward President Ronald Reagan during the AIDS epidemic of 1985. The play was acclaimed for its progressive thinking and exploration of important social issues.

College theatre programs perform Angels in America across the nation. Kushner was surprised by the impact it had on young people, but is happy to see it has found a home in many colleges and universities.

In addition to being a highly acclaimed artist, Kushner is known for his strong public voice and activism as an engaged citizen.

“We have a great responsibility to be an active citizen," Kushner said. "We have to give of ourselves to keep working and making and perfecting our America."

One of the most interesting discussions of the evening dealt with the role that universities play in encouraging public activism. Kushner recognized a university’s place in advancing the causes of justice and human decency.

“Education is progressive,” Kushner said.

Kushner does not find young people to be cynical about politics and their ability as activists, but he can understand why they might be discouraged.

“One act of terrorism we don’t talk about is the way we terrorize young people with talk of the destruction of a safety net and economic downturns,” said Kushner.

He asserts that aside from an occupational job, we have another job: to be a citizen. Kushner recalls being excited about recent political movements, such as the Occupy Wall Street movement, during which people started to make a public stand for injustice and economic disparity.

In his discussion of literature, history and politics, it is clear that Kushner is one of the more innovative thinkers in his field today. Kushner manages to blur the line between writer and social activist through his complex and thought provoking works.

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