Kojo talks with author Colson Whitehead about his new novel "The Underground Railroad" and its resonance at this particular moment in history.
Oscar-nominated actress Kathleen Turner is in D.C. for a star turn in a one-woman show on the life of firebrand journalist Molly Ivins. An unapologetic liberal in deep-red Texas, Ivins took on politicos with her trademark razor-sharp wit and intelligence. Of one Texas legislator, she wrote: “If his IQ slipped any lower, they’d have to water him twice a day.” In her life and in her writing, Ivins above all aimed to make us care — and to act, a trait shared by the actress portraying her. We talk with Turner about Ivins and her career in acting and activism.
- Kathleen Turner Actress
- Margaret Engel Playwright, "Red Hot Patriot: The Kick-Ass Wit of Molly Ivins;" Director, director of the Alicia Patterson Journalism Foundation; Co-author, “Baseball Vacations: Great Family Trips to Minor League and Classic Major League Ballparks Across America” and “Food Finds: America’s Best Local Foods and the People Who Produce Them"
Watch A Clip
An excerpt from the 2012 production of “Red Hot Patriot” at Arena Stage is provided and reproduced by kind permission of Arena Stage. The show stars Academy Award and Tony Award nominee Kathleen Turner as newspaper columnist Molly Ivins. The production runs through Oct. 28.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIMolly Ivins was an unapologetic liberal in a red meat state. The Texas journalist believed in satires, the weapon of the powerless against the powerful. And she used that weapon to take on top Texas political with her trademark razor sharp wit including President and former Texas Governor George W. Bush, whom she famously nicknamed Shrug. Ivins wasn't just funny, she was also a great journalist, unrelenting in her pursuit of a story.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIWhen she died in 2007, many admirers mourned the loss, including a pair of identical twin sisters who happened to be writers who decided to pay tribute to the firebrand writer with a play about her life. And for the lead in this one-woman show, these first-time playwrights snagged an Oscar-nominated actress and Golden Globe winner with a distinctive voice of her own. Kathleen Turner who joins us in studio.
MS. KATHLEEN TURNERWell, good afternoon. Hi.
NNAMDIThank you very much for joining us.
TURNERIt is a pleasure.
NNAMDIAlso with us in studio is Margaret or Peggy Engel. She is the co-playwright along with her twin sister Allyson of the Arena Stage production of "Red Hot Patriot: The Kickass Wit of Molly Ivins." She's a journalist and an author. She's also director of the Alicia Patterson Journalism Foundation. Peggy Engel, good to see you again.
MS. MARGARET ENGELThank you very much.
NNAMDIShould mention that Kathleen Turner will be starring in "Red Hot Patriot: The Kickass Wit of Molly Ivins" at Arena Stage in Washington through October 28. Kathleen Turner, what drew you to this play?
TURNERWell, I had met Molly. I -- through -- our paths had crossed due to causes and political positions that we had in common. As a board member of People for the American Way for many, many years one of our causes is of course the protection of the 1st Amendment which was extremely dear to Molly's heart. And so she was our major speaker at an event one year and I got to know her a bit.
TURNERAnd then by chance, Ann Richards who, you know, was the Governor of Texas and one of Molly's closest friends took an apartment in my building in New York where I lived because she was there for her own treatments. And I came in one day and these two women are standing by the elevator. And they looked at each other and they looked at me and they said, well, you're just coming with us.
NNAMDIShe's one of us.
TURNERAnd I said, well I guess I am. So I went up to Ann's apartment and proceeded to have a lovely time.
NNAMDIAnd that was the beginning of this odyssey that has now led to this performance. Peggy, like Molly Ivins, you also were a journalist as was your co-author, your twin sister Allyson. You wrote for the Washington Post for years and you especially admired Molly Ivins. She wasn't just funny. She took on important issues which is one of the reasons you admired her so much. Can you talk about that?
ENGELShe was an extraordinary truth teller and you often don't find that combination of wit and wisdom and someone unafraid to tell the truth, not worried about their career, really letting the chips fall where they may. So we were huge fans of her column and her writing.
TURNERYeah, I think what you've told me before, and I absolutely -- it strikes me very strongly, is that Molly truly chose to give up what might have been a much more lucrative and, you know, individually famous sort of career for the price of really telling the truth.
NNAMDIAnd if you read her pros how could you blame her. And with objects like Texas politics how could you again blame her? Here is...
TURNERWell, she says they were the most entertaining and the most corrupt, the most incompetent bunch of lawmakers on the face of the earth.
NNAMDIAnd as Molly Ivins, you should hear Kathleen Turner -- well, here's a clip about the show -- from the show about what Molly Ivins loved most about the Texas legislature.
TURNERThe Austin funhouse. I call it the late home of the laziest, the grievous, the most corrupt, the most incompetent, the most entertaining bunch of lawmakers on the face of the earth. It was love at first sight. Heaven on a stick. See, I would denounce some son of a bitch less as an egg-sucking child molester who went on all fours and had the brains of a adolescent piss-ant. Next day, son of a bitch come up to me, throw open his arms and said, baby, you put my name in your paper.
NNAMDIWasn't sure we could say son of a bitch on public radio, but you said it yourself. Was Molly Ivins exaggerating or is there something about Texas politics that's bigger and badder than everyplace else?
TURNERWell, it sure sounds like it. I mean, I haven't done a state-to-state comparison but certainly it seems as though those personalities, as we know from having many of them on the national scene, are quite exaggerated.
NNAMDIIt was amazing watching that. I saw it this past Sunday night. If you have already seen "Red Hot Patriot: The Kickass Wit of Molly Ivins" and would like to share your point of view with us, you can call us at 800-433-8850. Or if you just have questions for Kathleen Turner or for that matter for Peggy Engel, 800-433-8850. "Red Hot Patriot: The Kickass Wit of Molly Ivins is at Arena Stage starring Kathleen Turner through October 28. You can also send us email to email@example.com or send us a Tweet at kojoshow.
NNAMDIIt seems that Molly Ivins is still contributing to the political debate. When Texas Governor Rick Perry was in the running for the Republican nomination, Molly Ivins's comments about him were circulating again.
ENGELAbsolutely. Governor Goodhair as she dubbed him. But she wrote very serious analysis of his crazy ideas and really tried to present them in a way that voters could reach out and see what was just absolutely insane and how much damage he was causing and did cause for women, for people needing health care education.
TURNEROh Lord, what he's done to the women's health care in Texas is quite extraordinary. We got reports -- I am also chairman of the board of Advocates for Planned Parenthood right now, the position I have held for many, many years. And of course, closing down many of the women's -- the family clinics in Texas, we've received reports lately that women have been crossing the border in order to get care they can't in their own country.
ENGELYeah, so the New American Media has done several stories about women having to go to Mexico for care.
NNAMDIAnd for those of us who have been reading Molly Ivins over the years, the play is appropriately named "The Kickass Wit of Molly Ivins. But one of the things that you do in this performance, Kathleen Turner, is that you show that behind that wit there is both a serious and deeply committed activist. How difficult was that?
TURNERNot difficult. It's in her words, you know. I think that one of the lines -- yes, she is -- was a liberal and staunchly so. But this is not I don't think so much, you know, a diatribe of Democratic or liberal views. What this ultimately is is Molly had an extraordinary love and empathy for the American people. And what she really loved and wanted about our country was to be the best that we can be. And she speaks of being all your life -- no matter what else you do, you have another job. You are a citizen as, you know, a great honor and right and as well, a responsibility.
NNAMDIThat passion definitely comes across in your performance. One of Molly Ivins's favorite targets was another man who did make it all the way to the White House. George W. Bush whom she famously nicknamed Shrug. She was a thorn in his side throughout his presidency and, well, a little bit before that. Can you talk a little bit about that, Peggy?
ENGELI think because she knew him so well, they grew up in the same social circles in Houston. But after college their paths could not have been more separate. She got away from her family's country club ways and he really embraced his parents' lifestyle. So she first and foremost was always a patriot and saw great deficiencies in the way Bush led this country and misled this country. And she could not stop shouting about it.
NNAMDIIndeed. One of my favorite lines from the play, next time I tell you someone from Texas shouldn't be president...
TURNERPlease pay attention.
NNAMDIExactly right. Onto the telephones now we will start with Michelle in Silver Spring, Md. Michelle, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
MICHELLEOh, hi. I just wanted to say I'm a huge fan of Molly Ivins and Kathleen Turner. And when I found out she was going to do this show I decided I have to come and see it. But my question is I wondered if that famous quote of Molly Ivins about Pat Buchanan's speech at...
MICHELLEIs it in there?
TURNERNo, it's not in this piece but it is a wonderful thing that his speech probably sounded better in the original German.
ENGELIt was in an earlier version but we had to cut ten minutes for the show.
TURNERYeah, you gotta figure that there is so much material of what she wrote and so much of it is so good. One of the hardest things was selecting, you know, the essential -- having to get rid of some of that gorgeous stuff.
MICHELLERight. I think I have said that to more people.
NNAMDIYou know, I gotta tell you Peggy Engel, my own temptation would have been just put all of those columns together and tell Kathleen Turner, learn them all. Just say them all because there's so much material there.
ENGELWell, that's really what Hal Holbrook does in -- with his Mark Twain one-man piece. He has four hours of material and then just does two hours a night. But David Esbjornson who was our director had the good sense to say, if people wanted to revel in Molly's writing they could buy her book. This is a dramatic performance.
NNAMDIWell, a one-woman show is I imagine both a great opportunity for an actress on the one hand, but it's also in a way very heavy. It's all on your for 75 minutes, no intermission.
TURNERNo, it's a monologue, yeah.
NNAMDITell us about what that experience is like for you.
TURNERWell, on the one hand, you know, you have to -- you start to use -- you must use the audience as a participant in the play, you know, to -- most of the time when we're doing a regular sort of -- how do you say regular play -- but we pretend that there's a fourth wall. So we don't see the audience but the audience can see through to us. I can't afford a fourth wall. I got nobody to talk to, you know. So that wall is gone and it's just me and you guys, you know. And I do have a lot of fun. I find myself -- occasionally I'll catch somebody out and throw them a wink and they'll blush.
TURNERI had somebody, you know, on Sunday who I thought, you know, just wonderful deep gorgeous voice. He just kept going amen, amen.
NNAMDIRight down in front.
NNAMDIRight down in front. And she came right at him. I guess when you don't have a lot of other actors to play off of you play off of the members of the audience.
TURNERYou must, yes.
NNAMDIExactly what Kathleen Turner did. Onto the phones again, John in Bowie, Md. John, your turn.
JOHNTwo quick issues. Friday, I heard Ms. Turner speak on the radio regarding the assault on women's rights -- or reproductive rights and I was very impressed. But more importantly, I'm also a fellow graduate of UMBC and wanted to know if my alumnus has maintained ties with her university.
TURNERNo. I have not really. I only took my last year there so officially, yes, I am a graduate of UMBC, but well, I -- it was to me more of a stop on my way to New York from -- I was three years in Missouri, and -- at Southwest Missouri State. So I don't think I developed the same ties with the community or the school that someone who lived there would have. But...
ENGELExcept I'm here to report that Kathleen did adopt a great hunger for Baltimore steamed crabs.
TURNEROh, yes. They did get me on -- oh, yeah. Oh, yeah. Those -- the Chesapeake Bay crabs, honey, that's God's gift, you know.
NNAMDIYeah. That may keep her in this area for a much longer time. John, thank you very much for your call. We got an email from Jonathan who asks, "Does Ms. Turner struggle with the Texas drawl? Did she have a language coach?"
TURNERI did get -- take some coaching from a teacher in New York on some of the essentials, the hard American R that is so prevalent there. But I had to make some choices, if you really want specifics, in terms of the real sound of Texas and Oklahoma. So it's a very flat, very wide sounding mouth. Sort of like this. And it's really not that pleasant. It also does not project as well. So I found a way to sort of mix that with a little more roundness of the south. So I'm trying -- that's my attempt to find the common -- the best ground.
NNAMDIThose facial expressions on me would look terrible. On her they look pretty fine. Kathleen Turner joins us in studio. She is an Oscar-nominated film and stage actress, and winner of two Golden Globes. She's starring in "Red Hot Patriot: The Kick Ass Wit of Molly Ivins" at Arena Stage in Washington now through October 28. Also in studio with us is Peggy Engel, co-playwright along with her twin sister Allison, of that Arena Stage production. We're going to take a short break. If you have already called, stay on the line. We'll try to get to your calls. 800-433-8850 is the number.
NNAMDIWere you fan of Molly Ivins's brand of satire? What role do you think humor and satire play in politics? 800-433-8850. You can send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. We're joined in studio by Kathleen Turner. She is an Oscar-nominated film and stage actress, winner of two Golden Globes, currently appearing at Arena Stage in "Red Hot Patriot: The Kick Ass Wit of Molly Ivins" through October 28. Also with us in studio is Margaret or Peggy Engel. She is the co-playwright along with her twin sister Allison, of this Arena Stage production. One of the, I guess, backdrops of this performance is print media.
NNAMDIYou see all of the artifacts including -- I love the manual typewriting -- including the manual typewriter. Because when I started out, that's what we used, manual typewriters.
TURNERYeah. It's amazing how long it takes, because you really have to hit those keys, and we're so used to skimming on the computer now, you know.
NNAMDIYes. But that is in a way the backdrop of this, that Molly Ivins was a product of, and a producer of, work for print media, and now we see the influence of that fading. Talk about that, Peggy Engel.
ENGELWell, there really is a graveyard theme through it, and Molly did such great work because news rooms supported journalists to do that, to go out and dig and look and report, and even though there are fabulously talented people still doing that hard work, they're just not being supported economically by news rooms anymore, for the most part. And it's become a luxury, and I don't believe it should be.
NNAMDIFor those of us who still like having the print version of the newspaper in our hands when we are reading it, it's a loss. This, of course, is an election year. Was it important to you that this play be out now, Kathleen Turner?
TURNERVery. Very. This was absolutely planned and I am so proud and happy to say we were able to do it. I was -- we created this play two years ago at the Philadelphia Theater Company. Then last December, January, and February, I took it to the Geffen Theater in Los Angeles, and the response there was so extraordinary. It was just -- I said we've got to get this to Washington D.C. before the election. And Molly Smith, of the Arena Stage, agreed and brought us in.
NNAMDIThis has been described as a charmed production, Peggy. You got this in stage in record time with our guest here, Kathleen Turner, as the star, something a lot of people thought was impossible.
ENGELTruly, the ...
TURNERIt really doesn't happen like this very often, I swear to God.
ENGELIt's been such a surprise. There has been karma all round this from A to Z, and I think Molly is up there pulling the strings. There's no other way that something could have his land speed record, and to get Kathleen, and to get the creative team that we've had, and it's broken the box office records at every venue it's been at.
NNAMDICertainly was sold out...
TURNERWhich would be no exception here I'm happy to say.
NNAMDICertainly was sold out when I went. Neither you nor your sister had ever actually written a play before. How and why did you decide to do this?
ENGELThe day the Molly died, I called up Allison and said, we have to write a one-woman play about her, and she said, yes, we do. The fact that we had never written one didn't deter us. Allison had just finished an MA in screenwriting and we had both been writer for 35-plus years, and also steeped in the theater. Allison had been the head of the Des Moines Playhouse and worked on play selection, and we both had been in child theater all the way through.
ENGELMy dad was a struggling playwright when we started out, and worked with Helen Hayes, and I'm on the Helen Hayes board. So there is a huge theater component in our life, and it just seemed that an American icon like Molly deserved to be on the stage.
NNAMDINot to mention that as the father of twins, I know something about these things. As soon as you call her up, that connection was already made before the phone even rang, I knew that.
NNAMDIYour politics, Kathleen Turner...
NNAMDI...and your values, also generally lined up with those of Molly Ivins.
TURNERVery much so.
NNAMDIWas that important to you in decided to do this?
TURNERYes. Absolutely. I think that, I mean, I've been asked would I be able to do someone whose politics I truly, truly disagreed with and the answer is no. I do not believe I could, because to me, acting is truth, and that would essentially be saying a lie, and I can't do that.
NNAMDIThis play revolves around Molly Ivins's relationship with her father in part, a formidable presence in her life with whom she clashed over politics and over her career choice. Did that and other aspects of her life resonate with you personally, Kathleen Turner?
TURNERIt does. It does a bit. My father died when I was very young, the week before I turned 18. But he had made it quite clear because, of course, it was my last year of high school, we were -- we lived in London then. And I had made it -- oh, I'd be saying quite frankly for years that my intention was to be a professional actor, which he thought was a terrible, terrible choice, both because of the insecurity and because he felt that it was a very questionable profession. You know, all these stories of lord know what happens.
TURNERAnd, you know, the depravity or the debauchery that accompanies such a career. In any case, we disagreed strongly and fought about it and then he died before he could ever see my path of success. But I do -- I think had he had a chance to really see my work and my choices, he would not feel that way.
NNAMDIWell, especially since we got a tweet from someone saying, "Possibly the most alluring voice in the biz," and then it says, "Kathleen Turner that is. Sorry Kojo."
NNAMDIIndeed it is a wonderful voice. Here is John in Reston, Va. John, you're on the air. Go ahead, please. Hi, John, are you there? John? Can't hear you. I'm going to put you on hold and talk to Rich in Arlington, Va. Rich, your turn.
RICHOh, thank you. Thank you. I hope, Peggy and Allison, you might remember me. I'm a neighbor and friend of Joan Horowitz, and -- this is Rich (word?) .
RICHYou know, and theater critic too.
NNAMDIGlad we could bring you together.
RICHOh, thank you. Thank you. I -- by the way, you know, the star there sounds just like Tallulah Bankhead. Did anybody ever tell you that?
TURNERI already did her.
RICHI don't know if the younger people if they're gonna remember who she was or not. But anyway, Peggy and Allison, you didn't do justice to this. When we had that party out here that your sister gave, you -- well, I guess you just couldn't have raved enough about the show, and then I went to see it. I don't know if it was that night or the next night, you know, I went with my wife to see the show, and we were just knocked out -- knocked out by Kathleen's performance, and as were the people in audience.
RICHI mean, people were mumbling around saying things, you know, oh, yeah, yeah, and you really, I mean, you captured Molly Ivins, and everything she stood for and when does this play 'til?
TURNEROctober 28, and thank you. That was very kind.
RICHWell, thank you for the wonderful show, and thank you, Peggy and Allison.
ENGELThank you, Rich.
NNAMDIOne of the amazing things about it is Molly Ivins was what, six foot three maybe?
TURNERNo. She was just six feet.
ENGELSix feet. Six feet tall.
NNAMDISix feet tall.
TURNERBut she was -- she was a large woman. I mean in presence.
NNAMDIWell, Kathleen on stage looks about 6'2, and I wouldn't have...
TURNERI know. I came off stage the other day -- I came off stage and there was somebody in the lobby and they said, oh, you're not nearly as tall.
NNAMDIHow does one pull that off? Peggy, you also had to work with Molly Ivins's estate, and you were not the first to try to make a dramatic production out of her life. What happened there?
ENGELWell, we were surprised to find that there were two other established playwrights separately who had come before us. We don't know who they were, and somehow those didn't work. That happens a lot in theater. Things -- projects go by the wayside. So they gave us nine months to get a production up, which we thought seemed reasonable being journalists. But we now know that's like giving someone nine minutes. But luckily we did.
NNAMDIKathleen still finds that very, very amusing.
TURNERI do. I do. I mean, it takes years to develop plays, I know.
NNAMDIWhy a one-woman show?
ENGELShe was so larger than life, and had so many interesting elements to her life that we just felt that the focus should stay on her.
NNAMDIKathleen, Molly Ivins did get hired by the New York Times, the holy grail...
NNAMDI...for journalists, but in the end, she went back to Texas. Why?
TURNERYeah. Well, she -- for many reasons. One, she simply felt that she was too constrained, certainly by the rigidity and the tradition of the Times, I think the New York Times. There was a code of behavior that she did not ascribe to. I think that even though -- even when she tried "60 Minutes," she felt that she was -- her work was rather trivialized. She was promised back by the Daily Times -- the Dallas Times Herald that she would have the freedom to write whatever she wanted, and in fact, I met the man who was her editor then -- back then, and he -- they stood by their promise, you know, and that's where she started to really, I think, enjoy the power of her reputation and her experience.
NNAMDIWe got an email from Jerry who says, "I live in D.C.'s Maryland suburbs now, but for about two years in the late 1970s when Molly was chief of the New York Times Denver bureau, I was her stringer in northeast Arizona and northwestern New Mexico."
TURNEROh, what fun.
NNAMDI"I wonder if Ms. Turner knows the inside story of Molly's fateful confrontation with Abe Rosenthal?"
TURNERIt's in the play.
NNAMDIIt certainly is. "The legendary executive editor of the Times who angrily pulled her out of Denver. Molly quit shortly thereafter. That as a huge loss for the times." And as Kathleen Turner said...
NNAMDI...it's in the play.
TURNERIt's in the play, darling.
NNAMDIOn now to Ken in Reston, Va. Ken, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
KENWell, it's a great pleasure to hear you, and my wife and I look forward to seeing the one-woman show. Barbara and I had met Molly Ivins a number of years ago. We were at a book signing at Politics and Prose bookstore in Washington, and where she was signing copies of the book "Bushwhacked." And so at the end, after it was over, we had a chance to get her autograph, and we were given a piece of paper and told that we could have it personalized if we wanted to.
KENAnd what I wrote on the piece of paper was kick ass in November. This was when George Bush was running for his second….
KEN...his second appointment, and so she looked at that when I got it -- when I got up to her, and she said, I like that. I'm going to use it. And so it's really -- it's really nice to see my quote...
TURNEROh, we got this from you.
ENGELIn the title. I don't know.
NNAMDIIn the title of the play itself. We were having a discussion about Rolling Stone writer Matt Taibbi. You wanted to say something about that/
ENGELWell, many people ask us who is really picking up Molly's mantle and following on that, and I would say that Matt from Rolling Stone is one, and Gail Collins certainly at the New York Times. And you can really thank Molly for breaking the ground so that Gail Collins can be as free as she is, and funny as she is and pointed. So there are many others too. I don't mean to say there are only two.
NNAMDIBecause beyond the humor and the petty corruption she exposed, Ivins had bigger ideas in mind. Let's listen to a little of Kathleen Turner's performance in the play. Here's a clip.
TURNER...founding fathers left out poor people and black people and big people and female people. It is possible to read the history of our country as one long struggle to extend the liberties of the constitution to everyone in America. And I'll tell you something, it is ordinary folk who are gonna save us. See, all these heroes all over, hell and gone, I mean, Americans who are tough and sassy, who are brave, smart, who get pissed off, who fight like hell, who start over, whatever it takes.
TURNERIt is so damn uplifting. I have put the ACLU and the Texas Observer in my will. My legacy will be helping people be a pain in the ass to those in power.
NNAMDIAnd as we come to the end of this broadcast, I couldn't think of a more appropriate way to end it, because this show is something of a call to action for Americans, isn't it?
TURNERYes. As I say, it's not so much about right or left. She says that's not what -- that's not what's important in politics, it's being part of it.
NNAMDIKathleen Turner is an Oscar-nominated film and stage actress, winner of two Golden Globes. She's performing in "Red Hot Patriot: The Kick Ass Wit of Molly Ivins" at Arena Stage through October 28. Peggy Engel is the co-playwright along with her twin sister, Allison, of the Arena Stage production. Peggy, good to see you again. Thank you for joining us.
NNAMDIKathleen Turner, thank you so much for joining us.
NNAMDIAnd thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
Most Recent Shows
Kojo explores what's next for Chinatown residents fighting against a developer who wants to demolish their building.
Is a meal for a special occasion worth hundreds of dollars?
Fairfax County residents will vote on whether to adopt a four percent meal tax ballot measure on November's ballot. We explore why the ballot question has become such a hot-button issue in the county.