He was born Anthony Robert Kushner on July 16, 1956 in New York City, the second of three children of William Kushner and Sylvia Deutscher, both accomplished orchestral musicians. Struggling in their trades, the couple relocated the family to William's hometown of Lake Charles, LA, where he helped run the family's lumberyard and both he and Sylvia joined the small Lake Charles Symphony. Sylvia also branched out to become a star player in local theatrical productions, influencing Tony's affinity for drama, even as he grew into an outstanding student at Lake Charles High School, where he excelled in high school debate tournaments. Graduating in 1974, he matriculated at Columbia University, where he was awakened to historical critiques of social convention and influenced greatly by works of the great German leftist playwright Bertolt Brecht. Kushner went on to post-graduate study at New York University's prestigious Tisch School of the Arts, where he honed his skills as a dramatist and director. He began writing original plays, among them "The Umbrella Oracle" and "Last Gasp at the Cataract," staged at a small theater on Martha's Vineyard, MA in 1984, and "Yes, Yes, No, No" and "The Great Eliza's Golden Time," produced by the Imaginary Theatre Company in St. Louis, MO in 1985 and 1986.
Graduating Tisch in 1984, he wrote his first major off-Broadway production, "A Bright Room Called Day," the next year at the off-Broadway Theatre 22. Loosely based on the Brecht play "The Private Life of the Master Race," it centered on the conversations of German youth amid the collapse of the Weimar Republic and the rise of the Nazis and, through framing time-jumps, drew parallels to the Reagan era and rise of the New Right in America. Oskar Eustis, resident director of the Eureka Theatre Company in San Francisco, staged the play in 1987 and, impressed with Kushner, entreated him put his pen to work on a drama examining the increasingly devastating impact of the AIDS epidemic on the gay community. They developed the project at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles, and in 1990, Kushner produced his first draft of part one of the story. "Angels In America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes," was a modernist, heavily Brecht-influenced waltz of minimalistic scenes interwoven with one another and musical interludes, ultimately dovetailing several plots. It revolved around two couples, one of them homosexual and one heterosexual, and followed the dissolution of their relationships as their respective partners contracted AIDS. To symbolize the alienation and repression felt by the gay community during the Reagan era, Kushner fancifully wove into the plot the McCarthyite lawyer Roy Cohn, an arch-conservative, self-loathing homosexual who himself died of the disease, closeted to the end.
The Eureka staged a production of "Angels In America: Millennium Approaches" in 1991, followed by a year-long run staged by the Royal National Theatre starting in early 1992. Kushner reworked the script through the course of its productions, even as he penned the second half of the story, "Perestroika." As a result, the theatrical community was already abuzz over the play by the time "Millennium Approaches" made its Broadway premiere at the Walter Kerr Theatre in May 1993, staged by director George C. Wolfe. Frank Rich, in his May 5, 1993, review in The New York Times, set the tone for the production's universal raves, stating, "Mr. Kushner has written the most thrilling American play in years a work that never loses its wicked sense of humor or its wrenching grasp on such timeless dramatic matters as life, death and faith 'Angels' speaks so powerfully because something far larger and more urgent than the future of the theater is at stake. It really is history that Mr. Kushner intends to crack open. He sends his haunting messenger, a spindly, abandoned gay man with a heroic spirit and a ravaged body, deep into the audience's heart to ask just who we are and just what, as the plague continues and the millennium approaches, we intend this country to become."
"Millennium" won Kushner that year's Pulitzer Prize for drama and drew nine Tony Award nominations, winning statues for Best Play, Best Director for Wolfe, Best actor for Ron Leibman and Best Featured Actor for Stephen Spinella, as well as the top laurels from the Drama Desk Awards and the New York Drama Critics' Circle Awards. "Perestroika" premiered at the Kerr in November of that year and would go on to win the same Tony and Drama Desk awards for 1994, as well as Tonys for Spinella, for Best Actor and Jeffrey Wright for Best Featured Actor. Kushner followed up his breakthrough with a companion book, A Meditation from Angels in America, issued in 1994, and published a second book, the ruminative Longstanding Problems of Virtue and Happiness: Essays, a Play, Two Poems, and a Prayer in 1995. Kushner moved on to new stage works, as well as a teleplay adaptation of "Angels" for HBO. With Mike Nichols directing, the miniseries lured an A-list cinematic cast led by Al Pacino, Meryl Streep, Emma Thompson, Jeffrey Wright, Patrick Wilson and Mary-Louise Parker. It aired in two installments in 2003, mirroring "Millennium" and "Perestroika."
The miniseries received nearly as much critical laud as the original production, drawing a record 21 Emmy Award nominations and winning 11, including Best Miniseries and Best Teleplay for Kushner. Also in 2003, Wolfe again took the helm of Kushner's latest stage work, "Caroline, or Change," at New York's Public Theatre. A musical centered on an African-American maid for a Southern Jewish family in the early 1960s, it examined the Civil Rights movement and the uncertain times around the Kennedy assassination via her character, her children and her relationship with her employers' young boy, loosely based on Kushner himself. The show transferred to the Eugene O'Neill Theatre on Broadway in spring 2004 and ran for 136 performances. Almost concurrently, "Homebody/Kabul," his timely examination of bourgeois sensibilities in context of the so-called War on Terrorism, premiered in 2004 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. In the meantime, Kushner collaborated with screenwriter Eric Roth in adapting George Jonas's book Vengeance: The True Story of an Israeli Counter-Terrorist Team as a screenplay. It told the tale of an ad hoc shadow squad of Israeli assassins' tasked with tracking down the perpetrators of the infamous massacre of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics. Steven Spielberg brought the work to the screen as "Munich," released in 2005.
The film's stark treatment of assassination, and its suggestion of ambivalence on the part of the agents, drew the ire of conservative American Jewish organizations given to bridling at any remote criticism of the State of Israel. The Zionist Organization of America, in calling for a boycott of "Munich," singled out Kushner for previous statements critical of Israel's Palestinian policies and what he saw as a tide of fundamentalist religious fanaticism in the country. Though the film would earn $130 million and garner five Oscar nominations, including one for Roth and Kushner's script, it began a running feud between right-wing, pro-Israel organizations and the writer. It would crop up again when reactionary organizations protested Brandeis University's bestowing an honorary doctorate on Kushner in the spring of 2006. Kushner took the opportunity to lambaste his accusers, pointing out his critiques of Israeli government policy were being conflated by zero-tolerance groups as something more sinister than anything he had ever articulated. Kushner continued his affiliation with Brecht by penning a new adaptation of the German playwright's anti-war masterpiece "Mother Courage and Her Children," a production of which went up in 2006 at the Public, with Streep in the lead role and Wolfe again directing.
Also that year, award-winning documentary filmmaker Freida Lee Mock profiled Kushner in "Wrestling with Angels," which premiered at the 2006 Sundance Film Festival. It examined the roots of Kushner's politics, as well as his relationship with Entertainment Weekly contributor Mark Harris (whom he had met and begun a relationship with in the late 1990s), framed by the process of creating and putting up "Homebody/Kabul." Kushner married Harris in 2008. Kushner and Spielberg, meanwhile, began adapting Doris Kearns Goodwin's book about Abraham Lincoln and the eventful waning months of his presidency, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. In the spring of 2011, the City of University of New York (CUNY) floated Kushner's name as a candidate for another honorary degree, then stirred the familiar controversy when its Board of Trustees withdrew it in deference to reactionary interpretations of the playwright's previous statements about Israel. CUNY groups, including faculty and students, began a counter-protest, and previous well-respected honorees announced they would return their degrees in solidarity with Kushner if CUNY stood by the board. The board reversed its decision days later. Spielberg's epic "Lincoln," starring Daniel Day-Lewis as the embattled 16th president of the United, States, premiered in the fall of 2012 to rave reviews and Oscar buzz. Kushner, himself, received recognition when his screenplay garnered Golden Globe and Oscar nominations.
By Matthew Grimm
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