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tony kushner
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Happy Birthday, Tony Kushner, Writer of “Angels in America”

July 16, 2010
by Rachel Balik
“My day job is playwright. My citizen job is activist ... I succeed and fail at both my jobs, but I try to do them both.” Tony Kushner has won Oscar, Tony and Emmy awards for his writing, as well as the Pulitzer Prize for Drama for his play, “Angels in America.” He brings strong political views and a singular philosophy to all his work.

Tony Kushner’s Early Days

Tony Kushner was born on July 16, 1956, in New York City, though moved with his family to Lake Charles, La., at a young age. He later moved back to New York to study literature at Columbia University, and directing at New York University's Graduate School, from which he graduated in 1984.

Tony Kushner knew he wanted to be a writer around age 8 or 9, he told author Frederic Tuten in a conversation for Guernica Magazine. But when he got to Columbia University, he says, “I became more and more intimidated by what really good writers do.” Rather than risk not measuring up, he studied medieval literature.

After college he felt the family “pull” to be an artist (his parents are classical musicians and his siblings are artists). But he subdued his writerly urge, instead opting to study directing at New York University. Then he found himself sneaking his own bits of writing into shows, under the guise of “direction.” He ultimately recognized that his true calling was to be a playwright.

Kushner’s Playwriting

Before writing his most famous play, “Angels in America,” Kushner was, according to a Columbia University profile, “a moderately successful off-Broadway playwright.” One of his earliest plays, “Yes, Yes, No, No” was first performed in 1985.

“Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes” is a two-part play, totaling seven hours, that deals with politics and AIDS in the 1980s. The first part, “Millenium Approaches,” was first staged in 1990, and the second part, “Perestroika,” in 1991. The play won Kusher several awards, including a Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1993.

Frank Rich of The New York Times called “Angels in America: Millennium Approaches” “the most thrilling American play in years.” But he thought that the play’s political and historical significance was immeasurably important to its success. He wrote, “‘Angels in America’ speaks so powerfully because something far larger and more urgent than the future of the theater is at stake.”

Kushner followed “Angels” with more work dealing with politcally charged subjects such as race, sexuality, religion, a foreign relations; “Slavs!” in 1994, “Henry Box Brown; Or, The Mirror of Slavery” in 1998, and “Homebody/Kabul” in 1999. 

Filmmaker Freida Lee Mock followed Kushner from Sept. 11, 2001, until the presidential elections in 2004, to capture a glimpse of what makes this incendiary playwright tick. Kushner’s eloquence and political passion were ripe material: the result was a documentary called “Wrestling with Angels.” The film premiered in 2007; on the PBS Web site, you can watch clips of the documentary.

In an interview with NPR, Kushner talked about his decision to accept Steven Spielberg’s offer to co-write the screenplay for “Munich,” (2005) about the 1972 Olympics. Kushner admitted, “When he first asked me to do it, I thought, this is going to be very controversial,” and he turned the famous director down. He had also never written an action film, but realized, “there’s something in this [story] that’s compelling to me.”

Kushner was responsible for writing the first American English translation of Berthold Brecht’s play, “Mother Courage,” in which Meryl Streep starred. As he explained in an interview with the Hunter College Theater Review, when he met Streep during the filming of HBO’s “Angels in America,” they discussed their mutual interest in doing the play and finally found a home for it at the Public Theater’s Shakespeare in the Park.

Kushner said he knew he couldn’t take audiences back to 1949, when the show was first produced, or create that sense of urgency. Instead, he focused on making the jokes pack a contemporary punch so that laughter would unite the audience. “I felt it was incredibly important that we keep the evening crackling,” he said. 

In addition to his continued work in the theater world, Kushner has been a professor at NYU, written many essays and books, and even collaborated on a children's book with Maurice Sendak.

The Rest of the Story

In addition to writing for theater and film, Kushner is a frequent public speaker. In 2004 Kushner was the graduation speaker at his alma mater, Columbia University. His sense of humor apparently rivals his sense of civic duty, because he openly joked with the audience about knowing that Jon Stewart had turned down an offer to be the speaker.

He assured them: “Your disappointment that I am not Jon Stewart will last one morning; I am disappointed at not being Jon Stewart every morning of my life.” He also told them, “the world has a place for you. Take it. Mazel tov. Change the world.”

The Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, Minn., commissioned Kushner’s latest play, “An Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Socialism and Capitalism with a Key to the Scriptures.” which premiered on May 22, 2009, and ran until June 28, 2009.

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