In the post-September 11 political climate, the National Endowment for the Arts is once again facing controversy, this time over a grant for Berkeley Repertory Theatre's planned production of Tony Kushner's Homebody/Kabul, currently onstage at New York Theatre Workshop
On Dec. 1 the New York Times reported that, according to anonymous sources from within the NEA, a decision on funding for Berkeley Rep's production had been "put on hold" by acting chairman Robert S. Martin. The grant had already been approved by a review panel and the National Council on the Arts, which under normal circumstances would be followed by immediate approval by the chairman. In this case some of the sources speculated that Martin might be hoping to pass the potential hot-potato application on to the incoming chairman, Michael Hammond.
Whether Berkeley Repertory Theatre receives the expected $100,000 grant may be in question at the moment, but what is not in doubt is whether the show, to be directed by artistic director Tony Taccone, will go on: It will, opening Apr. 19. (Several foundations recently invited the Rep to submit requests if the NEA grant falls through.)
In Homebody/Kabul, by the author of the Pulitzer Prize?winning Angels in America, a bored Englishwoman, tourist guidebook in hand, escapes to Taliban-era Afghanistan. Her daughter and husband arrive to look for her there. "In their quest for truth and closure, the lines between the real and the unreal, the political and the personal, the public and the private, the psychological and the sociological, are intentionally blurred and artfully ambiguous," reads the Berkeley Rep promotional material.
"This play isn't a polemic," Kushner told the New York Times, adding, "Even if it were, it would be inappropriate for the chairman to deny the grant based on a political anxiety."
"There's a difference between political and polemic," Berkeley Rep managing director Susan Medak told Back Stage West. "As usual with a Kushner play, it's about multiple issues, multiple points of view, and demands that audiences develop their own point of view." At a regularly scheduled meeting after Sept. 11, the Berkeley Rep board discussed whether it would be insensitive to go ahead with Homebody. "But there was simply no question about this play. It was essential we do it," said Medak. "It's like we've been given this great gift. Under normal circumstances, if Tony [Kushner] weren't Tony, we'd be waiting another two years for a play about Afghanistan. Some playwright would be sitting down right now to write a play about Afghanistan, and in two years we'd be producing it."
Is Tony Kushner prescient? "He must be," said Medak. "There are lines in this play you wouldn't believe were written two years ago; people will think, Oh, he must have written them after 9/11."
Meanwhile, Berkeley Rep--and the politically buffeted arts community--await the outcome, due to be announced in mid-December. "We could get notified we were funded," said Medak. "Or we could get notified we weren't funded. Or our name wouldn't be on the list and we'd be left wondering where is our grant proposal, and are we in some sort of administrative purgatory."