TONY KUSHNER

December 11, 2018 at 4:45 am

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.

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>>> 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.

Mutual of America PSEG

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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