An unlikely, provocative target

Play: Conservatives say Moises Kaufman's `Laramie Project' gives students a biased account, but others find it offers conflicting points of view.

August 28, 2002|By Marego Athans | Marego Athans,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

NEW YORK - Moises Kaufman is a born outsider. The son of Eastern European Holocaust survivors, he was raised as an Orthodox Jew in deeply Catholic Venezuela and had nowhere to turn in that macho society when he began to realize, at age 9, that he was homosexual.

Eventually he turned to the theater, and today the 38-year-old critically acclaimed director and playwright is credited with two of the most widely produced plays in American regional theater - Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde and The Laramie Project. Both explore society's treatment of homosexuality and what that treatment says about society.

At the moment, Kaufman and the Tectonic Theater Project that he directs are under attack in a dispute that surfaced last week at the University of Maryland. The school plans to distribute to students 10,000 copies of The Laramie Project, a documentary-style kaleidoscope of the Laramie, Wyo., townspeople's reactions to the 1998 murder of Matthew Shepard. The 21-year-old gay college student was beaten by two local men, tied to a fence post, and left to die.

A conservative group, the Virginia-based Family Policy Network, says the school is trying to force students to view homosexuality from a biased perspective, and has threatened a lawsuit to block distribution of the play. The school, which has invited Kaufman to speak there Nov. 5 and 6, also plans a production of the play.

"How many more Matthew Shepards have to die before we can get past this conversation?" Kaufman said yesterday, during an interview in his two-room Upper West Side office. "Here you have this young boy being murdered and they're using this horrific event for publicity. ... They're using it to say homosexuality is wrong."

Protests common

Protests of public school reading assignments have become almost a ritual; recently the same conservative group that is protesting UM's plans unsuccessfully sued the University of North Carolina over its assignment of a book about the Quran, claiming unconstitutional religious indoctrination.

Those who know Kaufman and his work say he is an unlikely target. His work may be provocative, they say, but it presents wide-ranging and often conflicting points of view.

"He enters public discourse, he joins in with what are likely the big debates of the moment and speaks to them," said Tony Kushner, a prominent playwright and friend.

Gross Indecency and Laramie, he says, are epic in scope

with multiple viewpoints about contentious subjects - an approach in the tradition of Bertolt Brecht and William Shakespeare.

"He's a gay man and obviously has strong feelings about oppression and bigotry and stupidity that gay people have to face all the time," Kushner said. Yet there's a generosity when Kaufman puts the pieces together that somehow manages not to exclude or caricature, he added.

"In Laramie, so many people seem so nice in the play, you think, how is it that this kid got slaughtered here? Where is the evil? It asks the question, but in a way great drama refuses to do, it refuses to answer."

Jewish in Caracas

Kaufman learned at an early age how to handle people's stares - which he encountered every Sabbath as his family, dressed in heavy Orthodox clothes and yarmulkes, braved the intense Caracas heat to walk to synagogue. His father explained that people looked because "we were special," Kaufman recalled.

As it turned out, he was acquiring the tools he would later need as a gay man in dealing with discrimination from his own Orthodox Jewish community and others.

The first realization that he was gay was terrifying, he said, particularly in a macho, homophobic society with no role models.

"I remember I read the word `homosexual' in the dictionary and thinking there is one other person, and it was probably the person who wrote the dictionary."

Kaufman is six feet tall - but appears taller - with clean-cropped brown hair, an air of kinetic energy combined with warmth and a quick smile. His friends and colleagues say he has a "big" personality, generous, funny, almost baroque, exploding with energy and at the same time given to introspection and analysis.

In the 1970s and 1980s, when Venezuela was basking in oil wealth, international theater festivals were set there, and Kaufman was exposed to high-quality, often revolutionary talents who ended up influencing his career, including Peter Brook and Pina Bausch. At age 17, on a trip to the states, he saw Torch Song Trilogy in San Francisco, and was moved to tears, realizing for the first time that there was a place in society for a gay man.

Drawn to theater

He studied business in college in Caracas, but was so bored with accounting after his first 7 a.m. class that he rushed downstairs and joined a theater group as an actor. During the next five years, he performed in Portugal and throughout Latin America.

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