Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tony Kushner is rightly seen as the conscience of our community. With plays such as Angels in America, his seminal treatise on family, sexuality and the politics of the AIDS pandemic in the 1980s, and most recently, The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Socialism and Capitalism With a Key to the Scriptures (iho, for short, showing at The Public Theater in New York City through June 12), Kushner stands at the vanguard of American culture– challenging us to look beyond our preconceived notions and venture to the places in our mind we fear to go. In the midst of getting his new play together, he spoke with me by phone.
How did your upbringing [in Lake Charles, Louisiana] inform your creative development?
I feel like a southern writer. There’s a certain rhythm to [my work] and a certain fondness for lyricism. I benefited enormously in terms of my understanding of the world in the ‘60s and ‘70s in la, especially southwest la. There was awareness that things were really changing and cooking up and that there was an enormous societal shift happening. One of the single greatest influences on my thinking was that I was a high school student at the moment when federal busing was enforced seriously in the south. In the early ‘70s, the public high school that I went to in Lake Charles was integrated through busing, so I went to a 50 percent white, 50 percent black high school. It was clear that, although there were tensions and sometimes trouble, on the part of a lot of people, there was good will. There was a real effort to bring these communities together and make a school. I found it, and I think many people found it, to be enormously enriching and powerful.
It stuck with me as an example of the federal government intervening in an unjust social situation and actually engaging in a kind of social engineering–and I believe that that’s a part of the idea of education, (social engineering, a good kind.) no matter whether at home or school, public or private, it’s an attempt to actively mold what kind of adults people will become. I was fortunate enough to be part of a social experiment conducted by the government that seemed to be enormously positive and advantageous, not only for individuals but for the health of society as a whole.
What was the genesis of iHo?
It has a genesis from a number of sources. I’d come across the book, George Shaw’s The Intelligent Women’s Guide to Socialism and Capitalism, when my paternal grandmother died in Louisiana in 2000. I’d come down to Lake Charles to help my father pack up her house. I’d never seen it or heard of it (the book) before. I loved the title. At one point, it was a little lecture I used to give when I’d go out to colleges. I didn’t know what it would be.
Eventually, I decided it would be about an Italian American family in Brooklyn; the father would be a longshoreman and a union man and also a member of the Communist Party. There’s usually a good deal of theology in what I write. I had agreed to do a new play for the Guthrie Theater in 2009. it was during the time that the Writer’s Guild strike happened. at the same time, local 1 (the stagehands union in new York) also went on strike. I was surprised to hear a lot of people in the theater, who I thought of as being mostly progressive, all sort of talking like they’d absorbed the antiunion ideology of Reaganism. The idea that a worker is not expendable and that a worker has a share in the wealth that he or she creates. That there’s a relationship between production and the people doing the producing. People were saying, ‘they’re all making too much money anyway.’ this idea of a scarcity economy–there’s only so much, so if they get, then you lose. I was disturbed by that and moved by it. That’s how the play came to be.