Connecticut Voice

Your LGBTQ+ Voice

Catching Up With Tony Kushner

Looking Back and Seeing What’s Ahead



Tony Kushner, the Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award-winning playwright of “Angels in America” and Steven Spielberg’s go-to screenwriter over the last 20 years, is never short of opinions that are engaging, provocative and insightful. Whether writing for the stage, page or screen, Kushner’s razor-sharp mind, verbal dexterity, and humor, has made every conversation a pleasure as well as thought-provoking.

I first interviewed the Manhattan-born writer in 1990 when he was in Connecticut for a Hartford Stage production of The Illusion, an adaptation he wrote of Pierre Corneille’s seventeenth-century comedy. But that was just the beginning of his extraordinary career.

Of course, there were more conversations surrounding the developmental journey of  Angels in America, which began in the early 1990s.  In 1994 at New Haven’s Long Wharf Theatre, he returned to Connecticut to direct Naomi Wallace’s In the Heart of America, and in 1998 Yale Repertory Theatre presented his play Slavs! He returned to the Rep in 2006 where he collaborated with Maurice Sendak for the one-act operas Brundibar and Comedy on the Bridge at Yale Repertory Theatre.

His collaborations with Spielberg began in 2005 with Munich and includes the films Lincoln in 2012, West Side Story in 2021 and The Fabelmans in 2022.

Kushner, who turns 68 in July, was in the news earlier this year defending director Jonathan Glazer’s acceptance speech on the human suffering in Gaza when he received a Foreign Film Oscar for Zone of Interest.

But this time, our conversation was about the generational shifts in the LGBTQ+ community: from the 20th Century eras of repression, visibility, liberation and AIDS, to the 21st Century eras of gay marriage, rights and protections.

“From our [past] struggles, you presumably want future generations to be free, not only of restrictive laws but of a kind of toxic environment that you yourself had to struggle as a young person,” Kushner says. “There’s a degree of [young people] taking progress for granted.”

He acknowledges that this attitude is a natural part of the movement’s achievement—but it is also one that calls for vigilance.

“You have to be aware that as a minority there is always the threat of your rights being trodden upon, and so you have a job to pay attention to where that threat might be coming from and do the things that are necessary to ensure that you—and the generations that come after you—won’t be subject to oppression.

No political gains are permanent, he says. “Anyone who is a member of a minority of any kind —ethnic, religious, sexual preference, or gender — has to be continually aware, unfortunately.”


Changing communities

Mention to him that when I was in Stockholm, I asked some friends who lived there where the gay neighborhood was, and they replied there was no gay neighborhood per se, that LGBTQ+ people were integrated everywhere throughout the city. On one hand, I told him, I felt pride that our community had reached that point of wide acceptance—but that I was also a little sad, too, at the loss of a neighborhood community.

“I feel that way every time I’m in Greenwich Village, and I go past what was the Oscar Wilde Bookstore,” says Kushner. “On one hand you say, ‘Great, you can now go into any Barnes and Noble and there’s a fairly big lesbian and gay section, so why do you need a gay bookstore?’ But back in the day when that bookstore existed it was kind of an amazing thing. It was a meeting place and a cruising place, and we miss that now.”

Kushner spoke of a time when sex was furtive, something that he hears young people today seek as they explore the Rambles or having sex in parks. “It’s very retro,” he says. “But in the past, these things happened under very unfortunate circumstances. You couldn’t risk bringing someone to your apartment or you feared police entrapment. It all contributes to gay culture; just as oppression of any group’s experience is likely to be manifest culturally, sometimes negatively, but very often, we make art; we make culture to figure out a way to handle the difficulties we face.”

I mention that I felt some 20th century writers who were gay such as Tennessee Williams, wrote in an ambiguous poetic language that is missing today.

“Repression fuels a coded language,” he says. “You wouldn’t have The Importance of Being Earnest if Oscar Wilde could just have written about being gay. Tennessee’s plays have to do certainly with the understanding of the power on the powerless and the downtrodden and had great sympathy of the position of women in a male dominated society. It certainly obviously owes something to being an incredibly perceptive guy and to the fact that he was gay.

“You lose certain things, and you gain certain things. Being able to write openly has also brought a wealth of great works, too. Craig Lucas’ plays are extraordinary, and he was able to write openly about being gay, as was I, as was Larry Kramer, which was made possible because of the progress that had been made by people who came before us. Whether or not it was greater or lesser, I don’t know.”


Meaningful vows

I took this opportunity to tell him how verklempt my now-husband and I were when he and his now-husband Mark Harris were the first gay couple to be featured in a “Vows” piece in the wedding section of The New York Times in May of 2004 when they had a commitment ceremony.

I still remember in the article what director George C. Wolfe remarked when Tony said, “I do.” “It was the first time in his entire life he answered a question with two words,’’ joked Wolfe.

“Mark is much more savvy about media stuff than I am,” says Kushner. “I didn’t even know at the time we were being interviewed for the story. I paid very little attention to the New York Times wedding pages, and I don’t know it really registered to me that this was going to be the first ‘Vows’ column [about two gay men]. Of course, now I’m enormously proud and among our friends in New York City, there was enormous outpouring of positive responses.”

But it was the story of the response of Kushner’s father that I found most touching.

My father was alive at the time, and he was at the wedding and was in the picture in the newspaper. A cousin of his—whom I had never liked—came up to my father a couple of weeks later after my father got back from the wedding, and this cousin sort of had a smirk on his face and said, ‘Oh boy, I saw that picture in The New York Times, and I bet you were pretty miserable.’ My father sa“id, ‘Actually it was one of the most beautiful days in my life,’ and he never spoke to the guy again.”


Latest projects

Kushner says it has been a surprise to him that his collaborations on films have become a big part of his body of work and credits Spielberg “the greatest constructor of narrative in film history“ as the reason for much of his work in moviemaking.

His next project with Spielberg is a film adaptation of Rachel Maddow’s eight-episode podcast, Ultra, examining the history of a seditious plot to undermine U.S. democracy 80 years ago.

I mention two projects that his name was attached to—such as a  biofilm on Barbara Jordan and one other—in which Kushner says he is no longer involved. That goes also for a work he was considering writing about Donald Trump “which hasn’t come together, and I don’t know if it ever will. I would be very happy if the subject of Donald Trump is no longer of sufficient interest. Nothing would be better for the whole planet if he was gone and forgotten.”

He did say he is working on two mini-series, one based on a 1969 teachers’ strike and the other based on the non-fiction book on mental illness, He Wanted the Moon: The Madness and Medical Genius of Dr. Perry Baird and His Daughter’s Quest to Know Him by Mini Baird with Eve Clayton.

Ending our talk, I asked him—despite what he calls ‘the worst crisis to hit the non-profit theater movement in its entire history”—what positive signs he sees or works he now admires.

Kushner named the Broadway production of Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ Appropriate, and off-Broadway’s productions of John Patrick Shanley’s Brooklyn Laundry, and Itamar Moses’ The Ally, which he called, “one of the most astonishing plays I’ve seen.”

As for Kushner himself, the hope is that, to paraphrase Diahgliev’s famous advice to Jean Cocteau designing for the Ballets Russe, he will continue to astonish us.

Kushner will be appearing at the Westport Country Playhouse on June 6.


Photo Credits: Merie Weismiller Wallace/Universal Pictures and Amblin Entertainment; Alex J. Berliner for Universal Pictures.