She called for an “erotics of art” that would transcend interpretation and pave the way to unmediated aesthetic experience. When Susan Sontag died of cancer in 2004, America lost one its most brilliant philosophers and artists. “Sontag: Reborn,” a one-woman multimedia show by Moe Angelos that runs through this weekend at the Public Theater, seeks to juxtapose Sontag’s youth with the wisdom of her later years.
Directed by Marianne Weems, the show is based on the first volume of the writer’s journals (covering the years from 1947 to 1963), which were edited by David Rieff, Sontag’s only child. In the play, as in the journal, Sontag details her experience as a precocious teenage student at Berkeley, lists a prodigious quantity of books and films and wrestles with her sexual feelings for both women and men. In addition to the young Sontag, Angelos also plays an older version of Sontag, who appears on video screens (designed by Austin Switser) to counsel her younger self.
Angelos, who plays Sontag with the iconic white streak in her hair, is best known as one of the Five Lesbian Brothers, a troupe of female performers who burst onto the downtown theater scene in the early 1980s with satirical, sexually charged plays that overturned stereotypes about homosexuals in American society.
In an interview, Angelos said that she decided to create the piece after being struck by Sontag’s spirited descriptions of the nightlife in the gay bars of San Francisco, where she took up with her first female lover. Angelos called Sontag a “hedonist — very sexual and pleasure-seeking, as well as a voracious consumer of culture. Her appetite for beauty and art was unstoppable and unquenchable.” In sum, Angelos said, “I love the vividness and lushness of her life.”
Sontag, who spent her early childhood in Great Neck, mentions her Jewishness often in her journals. She refers to seeking a kosher restaurant for her grandmother, urges a reform of the rabbinate, and claims the “impress of Judaism on my character, my tastes, my intellectual persuasions [and] the very posture of my personality.” Yet while she ultimately made a film about Israel (“Promised Lands,” shot just after the Yom Kippur War in 1973), Angelos points out that Sontag tended to downplay her Jewishness; the performer calls her a “secular humanist New York intellectual Jew of the highest order.”
Rieff, who is celebrated for his writings on immigration and foreign affairs, is bringing out the second and third volumes of his mother’s journals, and will then publish her film criticism and letters. While he has not yet seen the play, he said that he “loved the script and was touched that they wanted to do it.”
“Sontag: Reborn” is part of the Under the Radar Festival at the Public Theater, 425 Lafayette St. Remaining performances are Jan. 12 at 7 p.m., Jan. 13 at 9:30 p.m., Jan. 14 at 5 p.m., and Jan. 15 at 7p.m. For tickets, $20, call (212) 967-7555 or visit www.publictheater.org.