Last reviewed: June 2017
American dramatist, screenwriter, and nonfiction author
July 16, 1956
New York, New York
Tony Kushner is a prominent American playwright who achieved fame in the early 1990’s with the production of his two-part drama Angels in America, startling audiences with its frank representation of contemporary homosexuality, including acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) as well as the play’s unconventional structure and use of fantasy elements. Kushner was born in New York City in 1956 but grew up in Lake Charles, Louisiana, where his family had a lumber business. Both of his parents were musicians, and his first experiences of theater occurred when his mother performed in amateur dramatics. Although Kushner does not use the South as a setting for his plays, he credits southern playwright Tennessee Williams as an influence and has said he would not mind being considered a southern writer himself. Angels in America was the first of his works to address homosexuality, and he argues that the freedom this topic gave him helped unblock his creativity and improved his writing. Of the acclaim given that play, Kushner modestly asserts that he was lucky in writing a play that spoke to issues people were eager to hear about at the time. A second wave of acclaim and interest in Kushner’s work came with the production of Homebody/Kabul in 2001, shortly after the September 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Kushner had been researching and writing about Afghanistan for four years prior to the attacks. The timeliness of the play was not entirely coincidental, however, as it was the region’s political instability that drew Kushner’s attention to Afghanistan in the first place.
Kushner returned to New York City to attend Columbia University, majoring in medieval studies. He studied the fourteenth-century mystical work The Cloud of Unknowing and has cited it as an analogue to the mystical elements in some of his plays. During his undergraduate years he met Barnard student Kimberley T. Flynn, whom he credits with guiding his political education, increasing his consciousness of feminism, and inspiring his work in many respects. After Columbia, Kushner studied directing at New York University. There, working under German-born professor Carl Weber, he discovered the works of German playwright and theorist Bertolt Brecht, whose writing was informed by a belief in the close links between writing for the theater and social activism. Other influences on Kushner include Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, and Karl Marx, the political philosopher and historian of social class struggle. Both in his plays and in other published remarks, Kushner frequently advocates the ideals of socialism and warns against the risks of fascism in modern society, particularly in the United States under Ronald Reagan and subsequent presidents. A committed Democrat, his remarks on Reagan and other Republicans have been among his most controversial statements. Tony Kushner speaks at the University of Maryland in February 2011.
Tony Kushner speaks at the University of Maryland in February 2011.
Tony Kushner discusses Angels in America at 20 in San Francisco, 2010.
After leaving New York University, Kushner founded a theater company called Heat & Light Company, Incorporated, which presented a workshop version of his play A Bright Room Called Day in 1985. After considerable reworking, the play appeared in San Francisco in 1987, directed by Oskar Eustis, whom Kushner credits with significant assistance, and then at the Joseph Papp Public Theater in New York in 1991. The main topic of the play is the collapse of the Weimar Republic in Germany into fascism before World War II. Early reaction to the play took offense at comparisons between fascism and the government of Ronald Reagan. These comparisons occur during a series of monologues interpolated in the play, spoken by a character called Zillah, who offers a late-twentieth-century perspective on the main narrative of the story, which focuses on the political fate of a Berlin actress and her circle of friends.
After working with Kushner on A Bright Room Called Day, Eustis commissioned the piece that would become Angels in America. The first part, Millennium Approaches, was first performed in workshop under Eustis’s direction at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles in May, 1990. It went on to full productions in San Francisco, London, and Los Angeles before opening in New York in 1993. It won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama that year. The second part, Perestroika, underwent a similar development process, with a world premiere at the Mark Taper Forum in November, 1992. Millennium Approaches made Kushner a celebrity. The play has strong political underpinnings, but compared to A Bright Room Called Day it compels more focus on the personal plight of the characters as they act out the consequences of their sexual, religious, psychological, and political influences.
The attention and praise lavished on Millennium Approaches came in response to an explosive mix of thematic and structural elements. Primary, for many viewers, is the placement of a gay couple at the center of the plot, with secondary gay characters influencing almost every scene. Intermixed with realistic depictions of relationships are fantasy interludes, which include a scene in Antarctica, a vision by one character of his thirteenth-century ancestor, and, famously, an angel who descends from the ceiling at the end of the play. In addition, Kushner incorporates a character based on the lawyer Roy Cohn, a right-wing lawyer who is here depicted as a closeted homosexual dying of AIDS. The success of Millennium Approaches occurred before Kushner had completed the second part, Perestroika, generating an almost overwhelming pressure that led the playwright at one point to believe that he would not be able to complete the play. George Wolfe, who directed the play at the Public Theater in New York, provided significant assistance to Kushner in editing and shaping Perestroika. Each part of Angels in America earned Kushner a Tony Award for best play.
After the triumph of Angels in America, Kushner produced a shorter work called Slavs!, which resembles A Bright Room Called Day in setting and political focus. He continued to emphasize his belief in the evil of contemporary government and the need to work for social change. In pursuing this interest, he began to research the fate of Afghanistan in the wake of Soviet occupation in the late twentieth century. This led to the creation of Homebody/Kabul, a play scheduled for performance in New York in the fall of 2001. (It opened at the New York Theater Workshop on December 19, 2001.) The September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks dramatically heightened world interest in Afghanistan, leading some critics to label Kushner as eerily prescient in choosing to focus on that part of the world. The first half of the play is devoted to a monologue by a woman who has become fascinated with an outdated guidebook to Afghanistan; the rest of the work traces her grim experiences when she actually travels to that country and the experiences of her husband and daughter there when they try to discover her fate.
The timeliness of Homebody/Kabul enhanced Kushner’s reputation as a playwright speaking on the most urgent concerns of his time and led to increased opportunity for him to share his views on socialism, feminism, gay rights, racism, and other issues involving the politics of domination and oppression.
For Caroline, or Change, Kushner drew upon his southern upbringing directly. The musical, about a black maid living in 1960s Louisiana, was born of a collaboration between Kushner and composer Jeanine Tesori. First performed in England, it won the prestigious Olivier Award and was later nominated for Tony Awards for best original score and best book of a musical.
The early twenty-first century also saw Kushner turning his attention to the silver screen. He made his first foray into screenwriting when he adapted Angels in America for a 2004 HBO miniseries, which earned him an Emmy Award. Kushner then went on to collaborate with Eric Roth on the screenplay for the docudrama thriller Munich (2005), about the real-life assassination of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympic Games. He also researched and wrote the screenplay for the acclaimed 2012 biopic Lincoln, based on the biography Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin. Both Munich and Lincoln were nominated for Academy Awards for writing (adapted screenplay).
Kushner has received critical acclaim throughout much of his career. Among his many awards and honors were two Obie Awards for playwriting, an Obie special citation, the Arts and Letters Award in literature, a PEN/Laura Pels Award for an American playwright in mid-career, and the inaugural Steinberg Distinguished Playwright Award. In 2012, President Barack Obama presented him with the National Medal of Arts for his contributions to the American dramatic arts. A few years later, Kushner received the Lifetime Achievement in the American Theater Award.