Photo by Todd KulczykRonald Reagan's America was either a period of expanding freedom presided over by a Great Communicator or (to borrow from William S. Burroughs) the last and greatest betrayal of the last and greatest of human dreams.
But was Reagan truly Adolf Hitler? Was his administration's mute response to the rising tide of AIDS tantamount to the Third Reich's extermination of six million Jews, homosexuals and other undesirables? Was America circa 1987 the long-returned echo of Berlin circa 1932?
Tony Kushner thinks so—or thought so when he penned A Bright Room Called Day, his dense probing of the political and cultural matrix in which the wobbly constitutional democracy of the Weimar Republic transmogrified into the unfathomable terror of the Third Reich. But Kushner wasn't content to merely revisit history. He set out to draw a clear historical—and ideological—line between the rise of Hitler and the Nazi Party and the human-rights abuses of Reagan's America.
It's not a subtle thesis. A young woman from Long Island, fleeing Reagan's America, settles down in the Berlin flat where a group of mid-1930s German leftists once slept, screwed, plotted and dreamed. As she confronts the ghosts of that past, her outrage at the present and her fears for the future, the point is made—over and over—that as long as so many are content to sleep through it, history, propelled by evil making itself manifest, will repeat itself endlessly.
In 1987, when Kushner's play was first produced, its strident tone found a more receptive, if marginal, audience. The left was aghast at Reagan's environmental record, his unprecedented buildup of the U.S. military, and his administration's blatant disregard of the growing AIDS plague. More than a few people waited hopelessly for a very hard rain to fall.
But 15 years later, it's clear that Kushner was flat wrong. ABright Room Called Day, though often great theater thanks to Kushner's incredibly smart writing and frequently spellbinding use of language, is bad politics and weak history. By demonizing Reagan's conservative revolution as a cousin to the Nazi party, Kushner undermines any meaningful criticism of that critical period of U.S. history—and of the continuing debate over its legacy. Reagan wasn't Hitler, and his America wasn't Nazi Germany. Sure his administration exported terror across the globe in any number of covert actions. But he didn't invade Poland. Sure his government presided over the most massive despoiling of the environment the world had ever seen. But he didn't condemn six million to death. Sure there was Iran-contra, Grenada and El Salvador. But the man didn't annex even the Sudetenland.
As a good Brechtian should, Kushner allowed his anger to overshadow the humanity of his characters. That's interesting theatrical theory—for Brecht, the goal in such works as Mother Courage and Her Childrenwas to get people acting, not thinking—but it rarely produces anything better than agit-prop theater. And agit-prop is precisely what Kushner produced in A Bright Room Called Day, agit-prop in which, we now know, the predictive politics are all wrong. America hasn't become Hitler's Germany. Bereft of its political power, A Bright RoomCalled Dayis left with shadows of characters who stand in for a variety of obvious political positions.
In time, Kushner tempered his moral outrage just enough to bring politics and poetry together in that exquisite piece of raging indignation and heart-wrenching compassion, 1992's Angels in America.
Though overwritten, ponderous and pretentious, A Bright Room Called Dayreceives a surprisingly enthusiastic and vigorous treatment courtesy of Todd Kulczyk, a master's student at Cal State Fullerton. If Kulczyk did nothing else, he convinced his talented cast to completely commit to their characters. The result is that even though they're written as little more than agit-prop voices, in most of these characters, there's a sense of genuine life and purpose that almost elevates the script above its morass of political posturing and finger pointing.
Almost. Kushner—in his seething anger at Reagan's America and his powerful use of language—is the star of this play. But he's also its black hole. The enormous gravity of his politics sucks this play into a void. God knows there isn't enough political discourse in contemporary theater. But with A Bright Room Called Day, there's too much.
A BRIGHT ROOM CALLED DAY AT CAL STATEFULLERTON'S RECITAL HALL, 800 N. STATE COLLEGE BLVD., FULLERTON, (714) 278-3371. THURS.-FRI., DEC. 12-13, 8 P.M.; SAT., 2 & 8 P.M.; SUN., 2 & 6:30 P.M. $7-$9.