2011 Honoree Tony Kushner
UPDATE: Nation Institute
Tony Kushner Makes the News
Posted by Jayati Vora, December 7, 2011 to the Nation Institute Blog
Photo: John Munson
Neal Rosenstein (left), of the Puffin Foundation, presents the Puffin/Nation Prize for Creative Citizenship to Tony Kushner (right) at The Nation Institute’s annual dinner gala, December 5, 2011
It’s big news when Tony Kushner wins a large cash award from the Puffin Foundation. It’s even bigger when the acclaimed Jewish playwright is embroiled in a scandal, as he was this past May when the CUNY board blocked him from receiving an honorary degree for his allegedly anti-Israel beliefs. And it gets more interesting when Kushner, in his acceptance speech on Monday night, states that he plans to donate the money to a scholarship for the students at the university’s John Jay College campus and jokes that he’ll name it after the CUNY board member who denounced him. (The scholarship part is real; the naming part undoubtedly not.)
The award, called the Puffin / Nation Prize for Creative Citizenship, which is jointly offered by The Nation Institute and the Puffin Foundation, is accompanied by a $100,000 prize. It is given each year at the Institute’s dinner gala, which took place this year at the Metropolitan Pavilion on December 5. The event is closed to the press, but Kushner’s humorous remarks must have been too good to resist, for quotes leaked out into the New York Observer the following day. The Observer scribe wrote that Kushner said
he felt a little bit guilty since anytime he heard of anyone winning an award, he always felt a twinge of jealousy. Jokingly, Mr. Kushner gave an example of being aggrieved that Israeli scientist Dan Shechtman won the Nobel Prize this year for the discovery of quasicrystals. “I don’t even understand what quasicrystals are,” Mr. Kushner said. “But I still thought, ‘Aww, why didn’t I win?'”
The announcement last month also made the news. The New York Times‘ Art Beat blog led the way on November 28, while theater websites such as Theater Mania followed suit. The Jewish Daily Forward ran a round-up post on its Arty Semite blog. The Jewish Journal, in its Hollywood Jew blog, filed a longer piece quoting from their own earlier coverage of the CUNY fracas as well as from the Nation Institute press release, in which Kushner said, in his inimitably humorous way:
To be a good citizen, much less a creative one, is a tall order, and while I hope I can say I’ve never taken the blessings of citizenship (however abridged these remain, despite recent advances, for the entire LGBT community) for granted, I feel certain that I’ve achieved at best a rudimentary level of sufficiency regarding the obligations that come with the franchise. I can only add that since this will make me feel terrible every time I fail to be a creative citizen, it’ll be a goad to step up my game — since citizenship, like playwriting or the violin, requires practice, practice, practice. I’m so grateful to The Institute and the Puffin Foundation for their wayward taste and misguided judgment, and I plan to keep blushing for several years to come.
The Journal blog post was also picked up by the Israeli newspaper Haaretz online. The Forward ran a profile of Kushner in their December 6, 2011 issue — written prior to the award ceremony on Monday night — which detailed his upbringing:
Kushner’s grandfather was a glazier who was locked out for attempting to organize, which meant that his mother grew up in “terrible poverty in the Bronx” and Kushner himself grew up with an understanding of how labor, society and the production of goods and wealth should relate. Over the past two decades, though, he notes ruefully, those assumptions have been dismantled as the conversation about the right to organized labor has disappeared and the “right to work” state has become the unquestioned norm. “It seems there’s no such thing,” he remarked, “as the category of economic justice.”
Watch this space for the unedited speech that Kushner gave.
The Huffington Post featured Congresswoman Tammy Baldwin‘s comments from the annual gala dinner, where she “held up the protests over Gov. Scott Walker’s anti-collective bargaining law that started in Wisconsin in February, as well as the Occupy protests around the nation, as indicators of the power of progressivism.” The post quoted her as saying, “We have learned something important in recent months. Something none of us should ever forget. The truth is, no amount of corporate money or right-wing lies can defeat a progressive movement that is energized and mobilized.” If elected to the Wisconsin Senate, Baldwin would be the first openly gay senator in the United States.
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Tony Kushner Announced as Winner of the 2011 Puffin/Nation Prize for Creative Citizenship
November 28, 2011 (New York, NY): The Nation Institute announced today that playwright, screenwriter, and activist Tony Kushner will receive the annual $100,000 Puffin/Nation Prize for Creative Citizenship. This prestigious award will be presented to Kushner on Monday, December 5, 2011 at The Nation Institute’s Annual Dinner Gala in New York City.
The Puffin Foundation and The Nation Institute co-sponsor this annual award, given to an individual who has challenged the status quo through distinctive, courageous, imaginative, and socially responsible work of significance. Recipients are drawn from a broad range of occupations and pursuits, including academia, journalism, public health, literature, art, the environmental sciences, labor, and the humanities. The prize is intended to encourage the recipients to continue their work, and to inspire others to challenge the prevailing orthodoxies they face in their careers.
Kushner is receiving the award for a lifetime of artistic work and activism that has given voice to the marginalized and explored the most challenging issues of the past fifty years. He has tackled everything from AIDS and the conservative backlash (Angels in America), and the civil rights movement in the South (Caroline, or Change), to Afghanistan and the West (Homebody / Kabul), and the rise of capitalism (Hydriotaphia, or the Death of Dr. Browne). As John Lahr wrote in the New Yorker, “He gives voice to characters who have been rendered powerless by the forces of circumstances — a drag queen dying of AIDS, an uneducated Southern maid, contemporary Afghans — and his attempt to see all sides of their predicament has a sly subversiveness. He forces the audience to identify with the marginalized — a humanizing act of the imagination.”
From his award-winning plays to his political writing, Kushner has faith in the power of an engaged citizenry to transform society. As he wrote in an inspiring 2004 essay, “I do not believe the wicked always win. . . . . Not any single one of us has to or possibly can save the world, but . . . with all of us working where we see work to be done, the world will change.”
Kushner is currently on location on the set of his latest project, Lincoln, a film adaptation of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s best-selling biography, Team of Rivals, starring Daniel Day-Lewis and directed by Steven Spielberg, to be released in 2012.
Tony Kushner said, “I was surprised — shocked, even — that I’ve been chosen to be the recipient of this year’s Puffin/Nation Prize. As to my fitness as recipient of an honor that’s gone previously to some of my heroes, I can only say that I’m aghast at The Nation Institute and Puffin Foundation’s decision, and can easily name many others more deserving; and I’m appalled at how I’m pleased that the committee didn’t pick one of them. Like most progressive Americans, I depend on The Nation magazine for serious, scrupulous, courageous reportage and analysis; I’m very proud to have been published in its pages and proud of my association with The Nation Institute.”
In May 2011, the trustees of the City University of New York (CUNY) blocked Kushner from receiving an honorary degree from one of their campuses, John Jay College, after a member of their board objected to – and mischaracterized – Kushner’s views on Israel. Their decision was met by public outrage, with the New York Times editorializing that CUNY “should have embraced the artist and tossed the board member out.” One month later they reversed their decision, and in his graceful acceptance speech Kushner said, “there stands a shining community of people, of spirits of whom I’m proud to be able to call myself kindred, who believe in the necessity of honest exchanges of ideas and opinions, who understand that life is a struggle to synthesize, to find a balance between responsibility and freedom, strategy and truth, survival and ethical humanity.”
Perry Rosenstein, President of the Puffin Foundation, Ltd., the co-sponsor of the Creative Citizenship award, said “Tony Kushner once wrote ‘Our despair is a lie we are telling ourselves.’ Whether it is in his epochal work for the stage, his screenwriting, or his activism, Tony manages to balance realism, rigor, and hope. He has weathered distortions of his thinking with grace and determination. His consistent vision of a just, more thoughtful, less fearful world isn’t rooted in an easy sentimentality, but in an understanding that true justice will only be achieved through patience and hard work. For his inspiring contributions to our culture and the world of ideas, we are proud and thrilled to honor him with the Puffin/Nation Prize for Creative Citizenship.”
Andrew Breslau, President of The Nation Institute, the co-sponsor of the prize, said, “Tony Kushner’s intellectual force and bravery has shaped our times. Whether it’s on the stage or in the broader world of ideas, Tony’s commitment to intellectual honesty, moral reflection, and the responsibilities of citizenship is an inspiration to us all.”
Kushner added, “To be a good citizen, much less a creative one, is a tall order, and while I hope I can say I’ve never taken the blessings of citizenship (however abridged these remain, despite recent advances, for the entire LGBT community) for granted, I feel certain that I’ve achieved at best a rudimentary level of sufficiency regarding the obligations that come with the franchise. I can only add that since this will make me feel terrible every time I fail to be a creative citizen, it’ll be a goad to step up my game — since citizenship, like playwriting or the violin, requires practice, practice, practice. I’m so grateful to The Institute and the Puffin Foundation for their wayward taste and misguided judgment, and I plan to keep blushing for several years to come.”
Tony Kushner’s plays include: A Bright Room Called Day; Angels in America, Parts One and Two; Slavs!; Homebody/Kabul; Caroline, or Change, a musical with composer Jeanine Tesori; and The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide To Capitalism And Socialism With A Key To The Scriptures. He wrote the libretto for the opera A Blizzard on Marblehead Neck, also with Tesori. He has adapted and translated Pierre Corneille’s The Illusion, S.Y. Ansky’s The Dybbuk, Bertolt Brecht’s The Good Person of Szechwan and Mother Courage and Her Children; and the English-language libretto for the opera Brundibár by Hans Krasa. He wrote the screenplays for Mike Nichols’ film of Angels In America, and Steven Spielberg’s Munich. His books include Brundibar, with illustrations by Maurice Sendak; The Art of Maurice Sendak, 1980 to the Present; and Wrestling With Zion: Progressive Jewish-American Responses to the Palestinian/Israeli Conflict, co-edited with Alisa Solomon.
Kushner is the recipient of a Pulitzer Prize, two Tony Awards, three Obie Awards, two Evening Standard Awards, an Olivier Award, an Emmy Award and an Oscar nomination, among other honors. In 2008, he was the first recipient of the Steinberg Distinguished Playwright Award. He lives in Manhattan with his husband, Mark Harris.
Kushner is the 12th winner of the award. Last year Cecile Richards and Bill McKibben were co-recipients of the prize. Previous winners are environmental activist Van Jones; former Texas State agriculture commissioner Jim Hightower; human rights lawyer Michael Ratner; Democracy Now! host Amy Goodman; educator and author Jonathan Kozol; journalist and author Barbara Ehrenreich; professor and anti-death penalty advocate David Protess; labor activist Dolores Huerta; and civil rights pioneer Robert Parris Moses.
Since its founding in 1983, the Puffin Foundation has sought to open the doors of artistic expression by providing grants to artists and art organizations who are often excluded from mainstream opportunities due to their race, gender, or social philosophy. The puffin, a species whose nesting sites were endangered by encroaching civilization, were encouraged to return to their native habitats through the constructive efforts of a concerned citizenry. The Foundation adopted the name Puffin as a metaphor for how it sees its mission, which is to ensure that the arts continue to grow and enrich our lives.
A nonprofit media center, The Nation Institute was established to extend the reach of progressive ideas and strengthen the independent press. Its dynamic range of programs include a bestselling book publishing imprint, Nation Books; an award-winning Investigative Fund, which supports groundbreaking investigative journalism; the widely read and syndicated website TomDispatch; an internship program at The Nation magazine; and Journalism Fellowships that fund up to 20 high-profile reporters every year. Work produced by The Nation Institute has sparked Congressional hearings, new legislation, FBI investigations, and the resignation of government officials, has changed the debate, and has a regular impact on the most urgent social and political issues of our day.
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