A rumor that the National Endowment for the Arts has delayed a Berkeley Repertory Theatre grant request, possibly for political reasons, has sent a chill through the Bay Area arts community.
The BRT made the grant application for $100,000 to produce “Homebody/Kabul,” by Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Tony Kushner. The play is about a British woman who becomes fascinated by Afghanistan and her discovery of the country’s troubled history through an encounter with an Afghan man.
Both the play and the grant request were written before the September 11 terrorist attacks.
According to a New York Times story printed on Saturday, an undisclosed source within the NEA said the Berkeley Rep’s application, along with one other application, was delayed for further examination just weeks before the NEA was to announce grant recipients.
“It will be very disappointing if we find the grant has been denied for political instead of artistic reasons,” said Berkeley Repertory Theatre Managing Director Susan Medak. “This is an important play by probably the most important living playwright.”
NEA Director of Communications Mark Weinberg said he could not comment on the status of the application and that NEA policy prohibits discussing applications until the grants have been announced. During the late 1980s, the NEA was at the center of a much publicized battle over the financing of controversial photographer Robert Maplethorpe’s artwork.
“There has not been a delay in anything,” Weinberg said. “As a matter of long-standing policy, the NEA does not comment on applications except in the third week of December when the grant recipients are announced.”
But Mayor Shirley Dean said there are unconfirmed rumors that a representative from the Bush Administration asked acting NEA Chairman Robert S. Martin to pull the BRT’s grant request, along with a $42,000 grant application from the Maine College of Art for an exhibition of visual artist William Pope, whose artwork often reflects controversial stands on race.
Medak would neither confirm nor deny the rumors but said a combination of three factors were probably responsible for the grant being pulled. “One, the play was written by Tony Kushner; two, it takes place in Afghanistan and three, the play is being staged in Berkeley,” she said. “It’s a lethal combination.”
Kushner, who is also a gay activist, won the Pulitzer Prize for his 1992, two-part epic, “Angels in America.” The play, about the devastating impact of AIDS on New York, was critical of the Reagan Administration.
Medak said that it will be difficult if the NEA application is denied but she would do her best to find a way to stage the play, which is scheduled to run from April 19 to June 9.
Several city officials and the director of another local theater reacted strongly to the rumor that the play’s funding might be denied for political reasons.
“I have offered to do anything I possibly can including calling the Community Affairs Office at the White House to lobby on behalf of the Rep,” Mayor Dean said. “This is a very serious issue, we’re talking about a matter of free speech.”
Councilmember Kriss Worthington agreed. “We are not positive yet that censorship is the reason for delaying the application but it looks that way,” he said. “How many questions of artistic merit could they have about a Pulitzer Prize winning playwright?”
Patrick Dooley, the founder and artistic director of the Shotgun Players, said if the funding is denied, the United States is taking a step toward becoming more like the Taliban, which dynamited two 1,700-year-old sandstone Buddha statues last March. The statues – one was 165-feet tall – were carved into a sandstone cliff in the Hindu Kush mountains in central Afghanistan.
“If our government tries to silence an artistic voice of opposition, it’s a sign that our democracy is eroding and we’re becoming more like the governments this country likes to criticize,” he said.