If you are me, it’s not too often you check into a solo-show Zoom production and feel that you are seeing something new, a concept that, maybe, has not been tried before.
I had that experience last Sunday, at the final performance of Lynne Kaufman’s Susan Sontag: The Smartest Woman in America, which had a brief virtual run at The Marsh this month. A local playwright with a national reputation, Kaufman has a knack for imagining discourse between people in the most difficult circumstances (disclosure: I recently produced a reading of a play she wrote which has a love scene with a quadriplegic). Here — in a bravura performance by Julia Brothers, sharply directed by Warren Keith — Kaufman captures both the astonishing wit and insufferable ego of Sontag, the most influential public intellectuals that you have probably never read. Her claim to fame was that she — writer, philosopher, film-and-theater artist — was famous in an iconic way, in the way Andy Warhol was known. You’d know her name and you’d know her face, and you had a feeling about her, but in fact did you know?
Did you know, by the way, that the streak of white hair against those waves of jet black is the color of her real hair? After her first of several bouts with cancer (she died of leukemia in 2004) her stylist colored her hair with one thick lock in grey, her natural color after radiation. If you know her name, you know that lock of hair. It’s artifice based on something very real, one of several contradictions that Kaufman explores. With an abundance of first-person source material, YouTube videos, and the words of the great writer herself, Kaufman take us places. To the University of Chicago where she butt heads with some of the great hard-nose intellects of her time, and gets to meet Mike Nichols, another iconoclast in the making. To Sarajevo, where she directed Godot and planted herself in the global conversation about the region, eclipsing her son David Rieff, one of the leading US journalists covering Bosnia at the time, and who later complained to his mom who apparently couldn’t control herself. She had great a love (Annie Leibowitz, her partner from 1989 till Sonntag’s death). She had flings (Bobby Kennedy, Warren Beatty, Jasper Johns, just a few). Kaufman shares a hard moment after 9/11 about the backlash Sonntag faced after she criticized President Bush for branding the bombers cowards.”Let’s by all means grieve together. But let’s not be stupid together. A few shreds of historical awareness might help us understand what has just happened, and what may continue to happen,” she wrote in a compendium of reactions in The New Yorker. But before we get much further in the story, Sontag is interrupted by her medical team, and she gets some disappointing news. She exits briefly, we hear a blood-curdling scream, and she returns to the camera without her wig. The artifice collapses. But you are grateful for the it for it because it has brought your here. Behold one of the most remarkable, fiercest voices of our pre-pandemic times. Perhaps now would be a good time to read her.