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Playwright Tony Kushner Challenges, Entertains, Shocks and Inspires

Playwright and social activist Tony Kushner, is best known for creating of the Pulitzer Prize winning epic Angels in America. VOA's Adam Phillips spoke with him about Angels and writing in general.

Tony Kushner has lived a complicated and sometimes very difficult life, growing up Jewish, left wing and gay in America's Deep South, and anguishing over many of the personal and cultural issues he explores in his plays. Still, Kushner has a surprisingly simple view of his job.

"In the end, the idea is to write stuff that is genuinely entertaining," Kushner says. "I think it is important for people who do what I do to not give themselves airs and imagine that their real role is to foment social change, or to enlighten the world or to educate people."

But, Kushner adds, theater should not only be fun, it should also be "problematic and confusing and exciting and difficult and moving."

Critics have used many of those terms to describe Kushner's plays, even his early efforts, such as the 1985 drama A Bright Room Called Day, and Hydriotaphia from 1987.

But it was Angels in America: a Gay Fantasia on National Themes," his 1993 seven-hour play about the AIDS epidemic, that gained Kushner a worldwide reputation and his Pulitzer Prize.

Using both realistic and fantastical imagery, Angels in America (which was also broadcast on HBO as a mini-series) explores the intertwined lives of several characters in 1980s New York, as the HIV/AIDS epidemic was beginning to unfold. Actress and fellow playwright Rebecca Joy Fletcher calls Angels a "masterpiece of American theater" that is both "timely," and "timeless."

"Angels in America is about the world splitting open for a series of people with very little to hold them up," she says. "For some it's AIDS. For others, it's religious tradition that fails them. For some it's the realization of the fragility and the destruction of our environment." Despite its subject matter, Fletcher says Angels in America is not gloomy. "Like all great works of theater, it's simultaneously heartbreaking and hilarious."

What Angels in America is not, says Tony Kushner, is a political screed. Kushner does not make unambiguous judgments on his characters, some of whom, like Roy Cohn, were public figures drawn from real life and have sinister reputations. Nor does Kushner blame society for the shame his main character (and he himself) once felt as a closeted homosexual, before experiencing the liberation of admitting the truth to family and friends. Good plays do not, in Kushner's words, "deliver fortune cookie messages."

"Plays are best," he says, "when you are confronted with conundrums that you don't really have answers for and you are trying to search toward an answer, and the problems are large enough and vast enough and tragic enough that there is more than one 'right.'"

A play that delivers a single point is "unsatisfying," he says. "It's not rich enough. It doesn't resemble life enough!"

Angels in America remains Kushner's best-known work. But his other plays also deal with challenging real-life themes. His 2003 work Only We Who Guard the Mystery Shall be Unhappy examines the persona of First Lady Laura Bush and the relationship of art to government. His pre-9/11 play Homebody/Kabul, about a Western woman in the Taliban's Afghanistan, explores painful religious and cultural divides.

Whatever the subject, Kushner has a love-hate relationship with his craft. Sometimes ideas flow easily, as if simply waiting for release onto the page. Other plays take years to ripen.

In Wrestling with Angels, Freida Lee Mock's documentary about Kushner, (which aired on PBS television's POV series) a student asks Kushner if he ever gets bored with writing. His answer is unequivocal. "I don't ever get bored with writing, But I hate writing, because I just find writing really, really difficult. You're alone with your own weird mind, and it's scary!"

Kushner collaborated with famed children's book illustrator Maurice Sendak on a revival of the children's opera Brundibar, which was performed by, for and about children in a Nazi death camp during World War Two. Both heroic and heartbreakingly poignant, Brundibar highlights the vulnerability and the heroism of those perished kids. Kushner adapted the libretto and Sendak, his longtime friend, designed the scenery.

The issue of memory is often the inspiration for Kushner's work. His darkly nuanced Broadway musical Caroline, or Change draws on his boyhood in Louisiana. The play addresses an angry snarl of issues: black-Jewish relations, North-South politics, liberal versus conservative social values, and other themes seldom dealt with on Broadway.

But fundamentally, says Kushner, Caroline or Change, is actually about the pervasiveness of money in our lives, and the trouble it can cause. "Money may be necessary," he says. "It may be a system we have devised from which some good comes as well as a lot of evil, but a lot of evil does come from it. Even if you don't want to reject it, you have to say there's a price to be paid for this thing we invented, and when it appears in human relationships, it corrupts and twists them."

He deems the notion that love conquers all ridiculous. "Love is an incredibly powerful force in the world, but so is money," Kushner says

Still, Kushner believes we have an ethical obligation to hope, not to despair, and then to act. In a commencement address at Vassar College seen in the POV documentary, Kushner exhorted the graduates to act in ways that will make the world better:

"Because the world will end if you don't act!" he told them. "Will the world end if you [do] act? Who can say? Will you lose your soul, your democratic-citizen soul, if you don't act? I guarantee it!" He then invited the students to "commence already! I am certain you are aflame. Hurry, hurry, hurry! Now, now, now! The world is waiting for you. The world needs you desperately. Organize. Speak the truth."

Playwright Tony Kushner is currently at work on two new plays, an opera, and a screenplay about Abraham Lincoln for the director Steven Spielberg.

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