One evening in September, while sitting in a cab in midtown Manhattan, Moisés Kaufman got a phone call telling him he’d been selected to receive the National Medal of Arts, the U.S.’ government’s highest artistic honor. “The first thing I said was ‘Are you sure you got the right number?’” Kaufman told AQ between laughs.
That the 52-year-old playwright and theater director is surprised by his own success is perhaps understandable. Growing up in an orthodox Jewish household in Catholic Venezuela, Kaufman’s sense of being an outsider was made doubly acute by the realization, at age 11, that he was gay. “Faggot and gay were some of the worst things you could say to a Venezuelan macho in the 70s and 80s,” he said, raising his eyebrows. “I was a minority within a minority.”
That minority experience has become central to Kaufman’s work and creative ambitions, and helped him connect with audiences across the U.S.
A few weeks after receiving that unexpected phone call, Kaufman was standing alongside President Barack Obama at the White House, about to receive, along with 10 others, a medal for his “outstanding contribution to the excellence, growth, support, and availability of the arts in the United States.” But it wasn’t his first time in the building. Seven years earlier, Kaufman had been on hand to see Obama sign the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act. Kaufman’s theater company, Tectonic Theater Project, had been invited to attend following the success of his play “The Laramie Project,” which was based on interviews conducted in Shepard’s hometown a month after his murder sparked national outcry over LGBT rights. Now, standing in the very same room, Kaufman would be recognized for his “sensitive probing of questions of culture and sexuality.”
But Kaufman’s professional turn in the theater was never a sure thing. Initially discouraged by family members and the scant job prospects for theater students in Caracas, he first went to college to study business administration. After five years of coursework (directing and writing plays in his spare time), he graduated in 1980.
“When I got the degree, I told my parents, ‘Here it is’” said Kaufman. “That was for you. Now I’m going to New York to do what I want to do.” He immigrated to the city and enrolled at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts to study drama.
After finishing school, Kaufman and now-husband Jeffrey LaHoste started reviving old plays in basements and abandoned grocery stores. Their aim early on was to use theater to start national dialogues on the social issues that concerned them. It was around that time that Kaufman wrote and directed Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde (1997), which depicted the events that led to Wilde’s 1895 imprisonment for sodomy. The play struck a chord with audiences, and quickly became one of the most widely-performed shows in the country.
“It launched our lives,” Kaufman said.
It was in the middle of that success that Shepard was killed. “I have always found it moving that it was Oscar Wilde that paid for that Laramie trip,” Kaufman told AQ from his office near Times Square. The Laramie Project brought more success and awards; Kaufman collaborated with HBO to adapt the play to a film that was nominated for four Emmys. Since then, Kaufman has earned more accolades and directed other influential plays, four of which featured on Broadway and two of which have been nominated for Tonys.
Aside from critical recognition in the U.S., the response to his work from friends and family in Venezuela holds special meaning for the playwright. “Seeing how they and my (other) countrymen rejoice in my success is a very big source of unexpected joy,” he said, after recounting that his mother, who always supported him, cried at the White House ceremony and said it was the happiest day of her life.
Yet he doesn’t go back to Venezuela often. Just as for Kaufman much has changed since leaving Caracas in the 1980s, so too has the country of his birth undergone a transformation. The election of the late former President Hugo Chávez in 1999 – and of current President Nicolás Maduro in 2013 – have brought years of economic turmoil to a head, eroding civil liberties in the process. “It was very difficult to watch,” Kaufman said of a recent trip back home, his first in four years. “The change was very noticeable … The poverty. The desperation … It was heartbreaking.”
Reflecting on his trip to Venezuela made Kaufman recall the day he became a U.S. citizen. “I had appointments afterwards so I was in a rush. I thought of it as bureaucratic procedure,” he said. “The judge entered the room and we all stood up and the first words out of her mouth were ‘If it is true that the wealth of a nation is measured by the quality of its inhabitants, today we’ll become a wealthier nation because you become our citizens.’”
The whole room began to cry, Kaufman recalled. After receiving his medal from Obama, Kaufman said he wanted to write the judge an email, to tell her he hoped he had lived up to her words that day. “I haven’t found her name, but I’ll send it when I do.”
Back in his office, Kaufman was excited about what is yet to come. He pointed to a board where “Jorge Luis Borges” was written in red ink at the bottom of a list in progress of ideas for plays. The Argentine writer is one of Kaufman’s biggest sources of inspiration, along with other Latin American authors such as Peruvians Alfredo Bryce Echenique and Mario Vargas Llosa.
At the closing stages of a divisive U.S. political campaign, Kaufman said that above all he would continue to make theater that satisfied people’s “hunger to be spoken to intelligently about issues that affect them.” That the public continues to connect with his work is proof of that idea.
“It’s them telling us ‘The questions you are posing… they matter.’”
Published on November 15, 2016 on www.americasquarterly.org