Film & TV

Tony Kushner’s West Side Story Problem

Tonu Kushner at the Critic’s Choice Awards in Santa Monica, Calif., in 2013 (Danny Moloshok/Reuters)
By the logic of the identity politics he claims to support, he can’t remake a play about Polish and Puerto Rican gangs.

The Left’s favorite playwright, Tony Kushner, is in a bind.

Kushner, you’ll recall, is the author of such politically radical travesties as Angels in America and Munich — and the author of far more mature works, such as Lincoln. Kushner is the type of fellow who says: “The founding of the State of Israel was for the Jewish people a historical, moral, political calamity. . . . I wish modern Israel hadn’t been born.” But he still likes to stand on his Jewish ethnicity as a crutch for his leftism. He’s an anti-capitalism radical who has earned millions of dollars and summers in a Provincetown vacation home.

And now, Kushner has a problem.

His problem: He’s a Jewish gay guy remaking West Side Story — a musical about Polish and Puerto Rican gangs, originally written by four Jews. This violates the core tenet of intersectionality, which maintains that it’s cultural appropriation when people of one culture write about another culture, and that it’s “white privilege” when too many members of “white America” (which now includes Jews) earn money on a particular endeavor. Kushner declares himself a “big believer in identity politics and political correctness.”

So how will he square this circle? He explains:

I mean, it’s a little tricky with West Side Story. . . . It’s also not exclusively about Puerto Ricans. It’s about white guys and Puerto Rican guys and white girls and Puerto Rican girls. So what does that mean, we should have two directors and two screenwriters?

Well, by his standards, yes. But he’s not going to give up that paycheck or that creative project:

Why shouldn’t we want to be politically correct, if by correct you mean not toeing the party line but toeing the line of history, being on the right side of history, being moral and ethical. . . . I’m aware of my privileged position, but do I believe I’m doing something wrong by writing West Side Story? I absolutely do not. I’m much more afraid of the musical theater queens.

Well, of course he doesn’t believe he’s doing something wrong. His ox would be gored if he abided by the idiotic intersectional principles he claims to support. Because Kushner is left-wing, the Los Angeles Times gives him a pass here, so long as he utters the buzzwords that the Left prefers. But there’s little doubt that he’s avoiding the consequences of his own ideology.

And he’s right to do so, because his ideology is idiotic in the extreme. West Side Story was based on a play by a white Christian male: Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. The music for the musical was written by a bisexual Jewish male: Leonard Bernstein. The lyrics were written by Bernstein and another gay Jewish male: Steven Sondheim. The book was written by a gay Jewish male: Arthur Laurents. The dance was created by a bisexual Jewish male: Jerome Robbins. The product has no gay people and no Jews. And it’s a masterpiece.

That’s because art is separable from the identity of the creator. Richard Wagner’s music is phenomenal, even though Wagner himself was a rabid anti-Semite. Roman Polanski created some great film, even though he was a child molester. And those are extreme examples. Shakespeare’s greatness lies in his universality; yes, he was the product of a particular time and place, but we still read his work centuries later and can appreciate its beauty and genius because through the particularity of human experience, we can gaze upon the universal. Bernstein and Sondheim and Laurents and Robbins were all capable of filtering their own experiences and skills through someone else’s story to create something universally interesting and uplifting.

Why does any of this matter? Because what is true in art is also true in politics. The premise of intersectionality is that you cannot understand anyone else unless you are a member of that person’s particular group: A white man can never understand what it is like to be a black man, and vice versa. That means a white man can never create great art about a black man (sorry, George Gershwin), nor can a white person understand the black experience sufficiently to craft policy that affects black people.

Perhaps Kushner should resign his commission and write only autobiographies — or at least plays revolving around people who share his exact background.

But that’s not true of art, and it’s not true of politics. Politics is about recognizing that even though you may not share someone’s background, our commonalities as human beings significantly outweigh our differences, which is why we can forge laws that govern us all while still recognizing the diversity of our lifestyles and viewpoints.

Tony Kushner doesn’t believe that, apparently. So perhaps he should resign his commission and write only autobiographies — or at least plays revolving around people who share his exact background. Otherwise, by his own theory, he’s appropriating others’ cultural experiences.

Or, perhaps, Kushner should rethink his perspective — as should all advocates of identity politics.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly cited Kushner as the author of Fences; August Wilson is the author of that play, and the reference has been removed. Apologies for the error. 

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