On Sunday, November 18, playwright Tony Kushner will be the featured speaker in the latest installment of the “Speakers at Temple Emanuel” series in Kingston. Kushner is best-known for writing Angels in America, the 1993 Pulitzer Prize-winning epic about the AIDS crisis in the 1980s. But that may change this month with the release of Lincoln, Steven Spielberg’s much-anticipated film about the passing of the 13th Amendment, for which Tony Kushner wrote the screenplay, based on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln.
Kushner’s appearance at Temple Emanuel will take place just two days after the release of the film, although it wasn’t planned that way. “Pure serendipity,” says Jeff Greenberg, co-producer of the Speakers program. Nonetheless, it’s excellent timing: a topical moment in which to hear the screenwriter of what’s sure to be one of the top films of the year speak about his work.
“People have been very surprised to learn that Kushner wrote the screenplay of Lincoln,” says Greenberg. “They know him as the Broadway playwright of Angels in America. But Kushner is apparently a history buff, and was born in New York City but grew up in the South [in Lake Charles, Louisiana], so his perspective will be very interesting.”
Kushner will chat onstage at Temple Emanuel with playwright Rinne Groff about his screenwriting and his plays. He’ll talk about his script for Lincoln — on which he worked for six years, according to an interview with Roy Blount, Jr. in this month’s Smithsonian magazine — and he’ll discuss the controversial Munich (also written for Spielberg) as well as Angels in America. In addition, Kushner will talk about the children’s book Brundibar, illustrated by his friend Maurice Sendak, based on the opera performed by the children of the Theresienstadt concentration camp.
According to Greenberg, the evening with Kushner is about having a conversation and dialogue rather than a lecture. “Tony Kushner has a very engaging personality,” he says, “but he prefers to speak extemporaneously rather than to give a lecture. And we love that; there’s something warm and personal about a conversation. Not only that, but he’ll be speaking with Rinne Groff, an award-winning playwright in her own right, and someone who has known Kushner for years and looks at him as her mentor.”
Co-producer Susan J. Ragusa says that the point of the Speakers series is to “bring a dialogue to the Hudson Valley so that people can have the opportunity to exchange ideas.” It’s a very engaging process, she says. “It’s lively, and people get excited. The last time we had a speaker here [political pundit Peter Beinart], people walked out with a conversation going on — between partners, between friends — people really talking about the topic and weighing in on their opinions.” The producers don’t take a point of view, she says, whether left, right or middle. “What we’re trying to do is to bring up all points of view, so that people can hear and determine for themselves what they think.”
After Kushner speaks with Groff, there will be a question-and-answer period, and then a book-signing afterward with Kushner and the opportunity to meet the playwrights. In addition to the Pulitzer Prize, Kushner has been awarded two Tony Awards, an Emmy Award, three Obie Awards and received an Oscar nomination. Playwright Rinne Groff’s work has been performed at the Public Theater and Yale Rep.
The program begins at 7 p.m. Tickets cost $35 for adults, $25 for seniors and students and are available online at www.speakerste.org, where the public is also invited to submit questions for possible inclusion in the question-and-answer portion of the evening. All money raised from Speakers at Temple Emanuel goes to support future speaker programs.
Tony Kushner with Rinne Groff in “Speakers at Temple Emanuel,” Sunday, November 18, 7 p.m., $35 adults, $25 seniors/students, Temple Emanuel, 243 Albany Avenue, Kingston; (845) 338-4271, speakerste.org.