TONY KUSHNER

The “Angels in America” playwright is here to discuss his life and work.

For more information on “The Workmen’s Circle,” click here. 

Aired on December 10, 2018.

TRANSCRIPT

> FOR OVER A CENTURY, THE WORKMAN'S CIRCLE HAS CARRIED THE TORCH FOR JEWISH-AMERICAN COMMITMENT TO SOCIAL AND ECONOMIC JUSTICE.

FOUNDED ON A SINGLE PRINCIPLE, THAT WHEN WE STAND TOGETHER FOR FREEDOM, EQUALITY, AND ECONOMIC JUSTICE FOR ALL, WE ARE STRONG.

EVEN MORE IMPORTANT TODAY THAN IT EVER WAS.

SO AT THIS YEAR'S CELEBRATION, IT IS FITTING THAT THEY WILL BE PRESENTING ACTIVISTS AND PULITZER PLAYWRIGHT TONY KUSHNER.

BEST KNOWN FOR HIS PLAY 'ANGELS IN AMERICA: A GAY FANTASIA ON NATIONAL THEMES' WITH ITS ACTIVISM AND JEWISH CULTURAL AWARD.

WE'RE DELIGHTED TO HAVE ANN TOBACH, WHO IS THE EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, AND TONY KUSHNER.

NICE TO HAVE YOU BOTH WITH US.

GREAT TO BE HERE.

ANN, TELL US ABOUT THE WORKMAN'S CIRCLE, HOW DID IT GET STARTED?

IT WAS FOUNDED IN 1900 BY EASTERN EUROPEAN IMMIGRANTS.

THEY CAME TO AMERICA, NEW YORK SPECIFICALLY THIS GROUP, AND THEY WERE ESCAPING FROM ECONOMIC AND POLITICAL OPPRESSION.

THEY HAD HOPED TO FIND A COUNTRY THAT WELCOMED THEM.

THEY DIDN'T FIND THAT.

SURPRISING AND SOMEWHAT PRESSIENT TO TODAY'S STORY.

THEY FOUND A COUNTRY WITH HARSH CONDITIONS, DIFFICULT HOUSING, PUNITIVE SALARIES, UNSAFE JOBSITES.

AND THEY QUICKLY CAME TOGETHER AND FORMED THE WORKMAN'S CIRCLE AS A COMMUNITY OF ACTIVISTS, BOTH TO HELP THEM TRANSITION INTO AMERICAN LIFE AND BE A COLLECTIVE VOICE FOR PREROGATIVE CHANGE.

OFTENTIMES WE SEE ORGANIZATIONS THAT STARTED A SIGNIFICANT PERIOD AGO.

A CENTURY FOR US IS A LONG TIME AGO.

I THINK SO.

HOW HAS THE WORKMAN'S CIRCLE, IF IT HAS AT ALL, CHANGED IN THE 100 YEARS SINCE IT WAS CREATED.

WE'VE CHANGED ENORMOUSLY.

WE STARTED OUT AS A FRATERNAL BENEFITS SOCIETY.

WE STARTED OUT AS HELPING IMMIGRANTS BECOME AMERICANS.

TODAY WE ARE AMERICANS, MOSTLY, SOME PEOPLE FROM OTHER COUNTRIES ARE INVOLVED.

BUT WE ARE WORKING TOGETHER AS A COMMUNITY OF ACTIVISTS, WITH THE SAME VALUES THAT OUR FOUNDERS HAD, NOW FIGHTING FOR A BETTER WORLD FOR ALL FOR IMMIGRANTS WHO TODAY MAY BE COMING FROM SYRIA OR MEXICO OR GUATEMALA.

IN THE 1930s AND '40s, WE WERE FIGHTING FOR IMMIGRANTS COMING FROM EASTERN EUROPE.

OUR GRANDPARENTS, AUNTS, UNCLES, FRIENDS.

SO THE VALUES WE'RE FIGHTING FOR REMAIN CONSTANT.

BUT HOW WE DO IT IS DIFFERENT.

NOW WE'RE A SOCIAL JUSTICE ORGANIZATION OF ACTIVISTS.

SO WHEN YOU LISTEN TO ANN TALK ABOUT THE CREATION OF THIS ORGANIZATION, AND WHAT THEY WERE, THE OBSTACLES THEY WERE LOOKING TO SURMOUNT, IT SOUNDS LIKE THEMES IN YOUR WRITING.

WE SAW 'ANGELS' RECENTLY AND YOU TALK ABOUT THE TIMELESSNESS OF THESE?

THE PLAY BEGINS WITH A RABBI TALKING ABOUT IMMIGRATION.

IMMIGRATION IS A THEME THROUGHOUT THE PLAY.

IN THE SECOND PART, THE ANGELS' MESSAGE IS CALLED THE ANTI-MIGRATORY EPISTLE, THE DEMAND THAT HUMAN BEINGS STOP MIGRATING.

THE SIMILARITIES AND THE REASON THAT IT MEANS SO MUCH TO ME IS THE WORKMAN'S CIRCLE ASKED ME TO PARTICIPATE, AND I'M -- EVERY JEW IN THE UNITED STATES, AND JEWS PRETTY MUCH EVERYWHERE, BECAUSE WE HAVE LIVED IN THE DIR DISAPRA FOR YEARS, AND WE ARE A WANDERING PEOPLE.

THE SENSE OF HAVING ARRIVED FROM SOMEPLACE TO YOUR CURRENT HOME, THE SENSE OF -- THE IMPORTANCE OF HOME AND THE PERMANENCE OF HOME, THE SENSE OF HOME, I MEAN, YOU KNOW, THESE PEOPLE THAT ARRIVED IN A VERY DIFFICULT SET OF CIRCUMSTANCES.

THEY ALMOST MET WITH TREMENDOUS OPPORTUNITY AND THE 14th AMENDMENT, AND THE POSSIBILITY OF A SECULAR SOCIETY IN WHICH EVERYONE WAS ENTITLED TO EQUAL PROTECTION UNDER THE LAW.

THEY WERE A VERY SMART PEOPLE AND PEOPLE WITH A PROFOUND SENSE OF CENTRAL JEWISH MANDATE, WHICH IS YOU USE YOUR BRAIN, YOU USE YOUR ETHICAL COMPASS, YOU USE YOUR COMMUNITY AND THE BEARINGS IT GIVES YOU IN THE WORLD, TO TRY TO FIGURE OUT WHAT THE WORLD MEANS AND WHAT WE'RE MEANT TO DO IN THE WORLD AND HOW WE MAKE THE WORLD BETTER.

JUDAISM IS NOT A RELIGION THAT LOOKS PRIMARILY FOR THE WORLD TO COME, IT'S VERY FOCUSED ON WHAT ARE YOU DOING TODAY IN THE HERE AND NOW.

GROUPS LIKE THE WORKMAN'S CIRCLE ARE BOTH PART OF OUR HISTORY AND PART OF OUR CONTEMPORARY REALITY.

I'M ENORMOUSLY PROUD OF THE WAY THE JEWISH-AMERICAN COMMUNITY HAS REMAINED STAND FASTLY PROGRESSIVE.

THERE ARE TIMES WE SCREW UP, BUT MOSTLY I THINK THERE'S AN ONGOING COMMITMENT TO THIS, BECAUSE WE UNDERSTAND THAT WE'VE DONE AS WELL AS WE HAVE DONE BECAUSE OF THE POSSIBILITIES THAT WE NOW DON'T WANT TO SEE DENIED TO OTHER PEOPLE.

TELL US ABOUT THE AWARD, AND YOU HAVE A GREAT STORY HOW IT HAPPENED.

PERFECT CHOICE.

THE WORKMAN'S CIRCLE ACTIVISM AND JEWISH CULTURE AWARD.

IT'S AN AWARD WE GIVE TO SOMEBODY WHOSE WORK EMBODIES OUR VALUES, AND REALLY INSPIRES US TO WORK FOR A BETTER WORLD EVERY DAY OF THE YEAR.

THAT'S REALLY IMPORTANT TODAY.

SO TONY KUSHNER, I MEAN, I HAVE TO SAY THE FULL NAME, REALLY FROM THE MINUTE I CAME TO THE WORKMAN'S CIRCLE TEN YEARS AGO, I WAS INSPIRED BY YOUR WORK.

AND YOUR WORK INSPIRED ME TO COME TO THE WORKMAN'S CIRCLE.

EVEN YOUR WORK WITH MAURICE AND OTHER PIECES.

THERE'S JUST SO MUCH OF TONY'S WORK THAT IS ROOTED IN THIS JEWISH CULTURAL HERITAGE, AND THE JEWISH TRADITION OF ACTIVISM, WHICH IS SO IMPORTANT TO ME AND TO THE WORKMAN'S CIRCLE.

IT INSPIRES US TO STAND UP AND SPEAK OUT.

SO WE WERE TALKING THIS PAST SUMMER.

I HAD TWO NIGHTS, BACK-TO-BACK, THE PRIVILEGE TO SEE 'ANGELS IN AMERICA' ON BROADWAY.

AND I TELL YOU, HOWEVER MANY HOURS, I DON'T KNOW.

IT WENT SO QUICKLY.

IT WAS SORT OF LIKE, YOU BREATHED AND IT WAS OVER.

IT'S ASTONISHING HOW QUICKLY IT WENT.

YOU LOOK AT IT AND THEN AFTER YOU WATCH IT, IT'S LIKE I CAN'T BELIEVE IT'S OVER.

IT REALLY WAS LIKE THAT.

I WAS THERE WITH SOMEBODY WHO IS ON OUR BOARD, WHO IS ALSO A JUDGE, AND WE LOOKED AT EACH OTHER AFTER ANY BREAK WE HAD, AND THIS IS THE WORKMAN'S CIRCLE.

THESE ARE OUR VALUES ON STAGE, THE ACTIVISM, SHINING THIS LIGHT ON HOMOPHOBIA, ON ANTI-SEMITISM.

TONY'S WORK RANGES ON RACISM.

NOT ALL AT ONCE, BUT IT'S THERE.

AND THE YIDDISH VALUES OF OUR HERITAGE, FRONT AND CENTER.

AND WE SAID TO EACH OTHER, WHY AREN'T WE HONORING HIM IF

IT WAS ONE OF THOSE HEAD SLAP MOMENTS SAYING OF COURSE WE SHOULD DO IT.

HE IS US, AND HIS WORK IS INSPIRING EVERYBODY WHO CONNECTS WITH IT.

AGAIN, ALWAYS NICE TO TALK WITH YOU.

AND TONY, JUST A REAL PRIVILEGE.

GOOD TO BE HERE.

CONGRATULATIONS.

THANK YOU.

THANK YOU BOTH FOR JOINING US.

A REMINDER FOR ALL OF YOU OUT THERE, FOR MORE INFORMATION, VISIT US AT METROFOCUS.ORG.

Funders

MetroFocus is made possible by James and Merryl Tisch, Sue and Edgar Wachenheim III, the Sylvia A. and Simon B. Poyta Programming Endowment to Fight Anti-Semitism, Bernard and Irene Schwartz, Rosalind P. Walter, Barbara Hope Zuckerberg, Jody and John Arnhold, the Cheryl and Philip Milstein Family, Janet Prindle Seidler, Judy and Josh Weston and the Dr. Robert C. and Tina Sohn Foundation.

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