Fears that a federal arts grant to the Berkeley Repertory Theatre might be denied on political grounds were dispelled on Tuesday, when the National Endowment for the Arts reported the theater was among the winners of its latest round of grants.
The BRT applied for a NEA “Creativity” grant to produce “Homebody/ Kabul,” a new play by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Tony Kushner, which is set partly in Afghanistan.
The New York Times reported on Dec. 1 that Robert Martin, acting NEA chairman, had delayed the BRT’s grant application. Many people speculated that the chairman suspected something unsavory in the combination of Berkeley, Afghanistan and playwright Kushner.
The author is probably best known for his two-part play, “Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes,” which won the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1993.
Tony Taccone, The Rep’s artistic director, will direct the theater’s production of “Homebody/Kabul.” He said on Tuesday he was “relieved and excited” that the NEA grant came through and was thrilled to be working on the show.
“It’s a very unique and original play,” he said. “(Kushner) is a writer of epic proportions.”
Taccone said that the BRT had applied for the grant well before Sept. 11 and the war in Afghanistan, and he was somewhat puzzled by the reported review of his application.
“We’ll never know exactly what happened, but probably someone red-flagged the play because it was about Afghanistan,” he said. “Then someone either decided the play was OK or that denying the grant would cause a scandal.”
The NEA awarded the BRT only $60,000 of the $100,000 it had requested for the production.
Susie Falk, the BRT’s public relations manager, said that she did not expect the $40,000 shortfall to delay or harm the production. She said that potential funders contacted the theater when it looked like NEA funding would not come through.
“Several people have shown interest in the production since the story broke,” she said.
Councilmember Kriss Worthington was one of the many Berkeley officials who was disturbed by initial indications that the NEA might kill the grant.
Worthington said that he wrote a letter to NEA officials asking them to expedite the review of the application.
“All we knew that (Robert Martin) had delayed the application to ask questions, which frequently is a sign that it will be killed,” he said.
Mark Weinberg, the NEA’s director of communications, said that the organization could not discuss the details of the controversy.
“I am obviously aware of those reports, but as a matter of long-standing practice we do not discuss the deliberative process,” he said.
“Homebody/Kabul” is scheduled to run from April 19 to June 9 at the BRT.
The play makes its American debut tonight at the New York Theatre Workshop. Its run at that theater has already been extended by two weeks because of the high demand for tickets.
Seven other Berkeley organizations were awarded NEA Creativity grants on Tuesday – Heyday Books, Kelsey Street Press, Poetry Flash, Threepenny Review, Cal Performances, the Pacific Film Archive and Warzinake Productions.
A total of $181,500 was given to the eight Berkeley-based grant winners. By contrast, only five Oakland organizations won awards, totaling $80,000.
Wendy Lesser, editor of the Threepenny Review, said that the award would be used to pay for authors’ fees and a subscription drive for the small literary journal.
Lesser said that the grant, which totaled $15,000 or 7.5 percent of the journal’s annual budget, was the largest it had ever received from the NEA.
The Threepenny Review’s web site carries a blurb from Kushner, and Lesser said that when she heard about the controversy surrounding the BRT’s application, she wrote the theater and the playwright to offer her support.
“I was afraid I’d have to renounce my grant if they refused theirs,” she said.