Metro Weekly

Guardian Angel: Tony Kushner

Two decades after his magnum opus "Angels in America," Tony Kushner continues to expound on gay topics

Tony Kushner

Tony Kushner
Photo by Joan Marcus

MW: That gets at the idea that, at the very least, progress follows a slow and steady course — two steps forward, one step back.

KUSHNER: Yeah. The world changes as time passes. People change, history changes people, people change history, and new circumstances insist upon new solutions. That’s absolutely one thing you learn from reading history, and also from having lived for 58 years: progress is always reversible. And enormously important gains that seem to you with crystal clarity to be inarguable improvements of the human condition, these things can be done away with if it serves some nefarious, ideological purpose. I think that’s one of the many things that we’re seeing right now — a really ugly, personalized assault on a president who I think by any standards has been a very good if not a great president, and he would be a great president if Congress wasn’t completely dysfunctional. But the vote against Obama is not a vote against his policies — it’s not about Obamacare — it’s about having a black man in the White House. I’m certain of that. And it’s not just true in my hometown of Louisiana, although it’s absolutely true there. I think it’s true across the country. The country is changing now and becoming something very different. And there’s a kind of freak out about it.

So you think, okay, we’ve finally progressed to the point where we can elect an African American to the White House, and that’s an amazing major, major thing. And then you turn around and Mitch McConnell is Majority Leader in the Senate.

MW: Similarly, there seems to be a backlash forming against the rapid progress we’ve made in recent years with gay rights and particularly with marriage equality.

KUSHNER: Well there’s going to be one. I mean, how reversible what’s happened is, I don’t know. But it’s a very serious situation, and of course a great deal depends on the courts. And a Republican Senate. And God forbid a million times — I don’t think that they have a shot at the White House, I really don’t. Although we shouldn’t be complacent. Anyone who wants to know what just happened needs to look at voter turnout, and not say, “Oh, Obama did this or he didn’t do that.” We need to say, “Why the hell, with so much at stake wasn’t there much greater turnout among progressive people?” I don’t know with redistricting and so on if we could have prevented some of what happened, but some places like Maryland, with the governorship going to a Republican — there are things that are really shocking and we have to really ask where this complacency that I think we just displayed as a community — the community of progressive people in the country — comes from and whether we can afford it. I think the answer is obviously we can’t.

I don’t know what will happen in terms of marriage equality. The rapidity with which things have changed in the last two or three months is like nothing I’ve ever seen, led by the courts. And it’s been accompanied by a change in people’s opinion. Who knows what the Republicans are going to do now? I’m almost more afraid of the sort of centrist Democrat line that, “Oh, we lost because of all of these court decisions about gay marriage and we have to distance ourselves.” But I don’t think they’re going to do that. I mean, I don’t think anybody who’s paying attention to polls — and they all pay attention to very little else but polls — can really say that going homophobic in a big way right now would be a surefire vote-getter. There’s a lot of homophobia still out there, but I think there aren’t too many people who at this point really don’t get why same-sex people should be allowed to be married. But we’ll see.

I mean, on the other hand, we just allowed in a new crop of really depressing people into the U.S. Congress. When I was younger, you would never have seen anybody like Ted Cruz as a U.S. Senator. Even the bad U.S. Senators, people like Strom Thurmond, were more impressive than this guy. We’ve really lowered the bar terribly in the last few years. And so, God knows what they’re going to get up to. It would just be a waste of money I think if they tried to pass some sort of amendment to abolish same-sex marriage in the United States. The constitutional issues alone would be mind-boggling, and I don’t think it would have a chance in hell to be ratified. But we know that all they think the government is for [is] to grind their axes and try and destroy opponents. They don’t believe the government has any positive role.

MW: I want to turn the discussion to HIV/AIDS, which was a central theme in Angels in America. Obviously since then, and even in just the past couple years, we’ve made great strides on this front. But there is increasing debate about whether the gay community in particular is becoming complacent or even backsliding when it comes to dealing with sex and sexual health.

KUSHNER: I don’t know how to answer that. The human race has made appallingly little progress in terms of AIDS treatment and prevention. Some of the failure of progress in terms of prevention, from the people that I talk to, is genuinely about limitations of science. [The disease] is a formidable adversary, and we don’t yet have a cure. [But] in terms of taking care of people who are infected and in terms of trying to curb the spread of it, we haven’t done a very good job. And it’s a global pandemic now. In industrialized countries and reasonably wealthy countries, in some ways it’s a kind of latent illness — although it’s not something that anybody should want to have, and we don’t know what the effect of all these medications ultimately will be on a body that has to take them for decades. We’re learning that. But we learned a while ago how to stop the spread of most opportunistic infections related to AIDS, and to reduce viral loads and theoretically reduce transmission.

I’ll be honest, I find it very, very upsetting and very distressing when any young person tells me that they just seroconverted. It’s not like when I was [younger] in the early 1980s and we didn’t know anything. We have all this information now. What happened? But on the other hand, we sort of know what happened — human sexuality is a really complicated thing. I think you’re dealing with everything from positive things like passion, and breaking down barriers that separate people — which I think is one of the purposes of sex. And so having a lot of barriers is hard, is difficult. And fantasies of spontaneity that are sold by every movie and television show ever made, safe sex sort of flies in the face of that.

Most people can’t live with a day-to-day awareness of the possibility of oblivion, so we numb ourselves. We’ve been living with AIDS for a long time, and I think there are a lot of people who just say, “I’m tired. I did safe sex most of the time but then there was this one time.” And then there are all the other [related] problems — drinking or doing drugs and losing your bearings. There’s a sexual morality that we’re in the process of developing, but it’s going to take time. I mean, we were victims of a really virulent form of oppression for a very, very long time, and there’s a lot of working out of stuff that has to happen. I think that the community has basically done a rather astonishing job of addressing the epidemic and not allowing the epidemic to disintegrate us or make us abandon our fight against oppression and homophobia.

But increased rates of infection among young people also worry me because I think that the world is so much harder for people who are young right now. They’re really protected from nothing. They’re told that there is no safety net for them. They’re told that the economy is never going to recover. They’re told that the ecosystem is in fact collapsing. How do you develop a sense of future and of security — and a passion for the future — with all of that in your face? It’s hard to resist despair.

MW: Do you have any opinion about preventative pharmaceutical measures such as pre- and post-exposure prophylaxis, known as PrEP and PEP respectively, in which sexually active people who are HIV negative take a pill that some studies have shown dramatically reduces the risk of infection?

KUSHNER: Well, I won’t pretend to know a great deal about it. But what I have read about it — there’s no guarantee of any of these. We don’t know the long-term effects of those drugs themselves on the body. It seems you should always avoid taking any medication that you don’t need. And I don’t hear any serious medical professionals anywhere saying that we have now come up with a really foolproof way to avoid HIV — and many other kinds of sexually transmitted diseases by the way — other than by non-pharmaceutical measures, including the use of condoms and abstaining from certain activities that are really very high risk. And staying clear-headed when you’re having sex so you know what’s happening to you while you’re doing it. To grab wildly at drugs that were developed as antivirals and use them as some kind of prophylactics, especially relying on anecdotal information….

Is it safer than doing it without any of that stuff, and just doing barebacking? Uh, yeah. It’s safer to do that. But don’t fuck around with your immune system. Try and preserve it. There’s nothing really that you can experience that’s worth the possible serious compromising of your body’s methods of surviving in the world, which is what your immune system is. Just don’t burn the house down. We don’t know about the efficacy of repeated uses, so, I don’t know. It’s very difficult. I really get it. It’s really, really difficult. Be cautious, and don’t play Russian roulette. Don’t kid yourself that it won’t happen to you. You have to do a really serious psychic inventory and decide, “Is there any part of my brain that feels immortal?” If there’s any part of you that is flirting with the possibility that you may be the one to be spared, just because you’re so special, you want to identify that aspect of yourself and have a very serious talk with it because it’s wrong. It’s a crapshoot, and anyone can get unlucky.

MW: Have you thought about exploring this topic again, perhaps by writing a part three to Angels?

KUSHNER: No. I used to talk about that a lot. It was hard to say goodbye to those people in the play and the actors because they had been part of my life for a really long time and they had changed my life. My life was radically different after Angels opened. I’m sure I could probably write these characters again, because they’re very close to me. And I love them, even though they’re not real. With the exception of Roy [Cohn] who died, I think I could continue to write plays with those people. And there was a point at which I thought maybe that’s all I would do. I’ll just write parts until I’m too old to write anymore. But it hasn’t worked out that way, and I don’t feel any great [need]. I don’t want to say never,but I also don’t want to be 150 and decide that now is the time to write the sequel to Angels in America, and write something bad that everybody is embarrassed by.

MW: You’ve produced several well-regarded works since Angels, but that early play remains, as it’s listed on your Wikipedia page, your “magnum opus.” Do you feel pressure to repeat that level of success?

KUSHNER: No. I mean, would I like it again? Maybe, sure. Angels happened at a very particular moment in time. I think it’s a really good play. I’m very proud of it, I’m not saying this to diminish it. But I think it was also one of those things that happen to somebody occasionally, where it was the right thing at the right moment and it becomes a very, very big deal. I know that when I die, my obituary will say, “the author of Angels in America.” And that’s okay. I mean, I’d rather have written it than not have written it.

I’m very proud of a lot of the work that I’ve done. I think Lincoln had a level of success — financially, it was a huge box office hit, which nobody was expecting it to be. And I’m really proud of it. I was proud of Munich. I like working in film a lot. But I think that [fundamentally] I’m a playwright. Whenever I say this, I sound a little bit like Eve Harrington at the end of All About Eve: Though I’m going to Hollywood, my heart will always be in the theater. Theater is more interesting to me than any other medium. It’s not better, it’s not superior in any way. But it does something very different than film, and I really love what it does.

I feel that my job as a playwright and as a screenwriter is to be a popular entertainer. And I would hate to write anything that nobody liked. And so far I don’t think I have done that. I think everything that I’ve written has done what I needed it to, which is to hold an audience and give them a rich theatrical experience. Other than that I can’t control it.

MW: I’ve heard you say before that you’re proudest of your work on the musical Caroline, or Change.

KUSHNER: Yeah, I am. I mean, I love it very much. I think what Jeanine did is just mindboggling and beautiful, and it completely works. I really love that it’s two-hours long. It’s just a normal theatrical experience as opposed to everything else I’ve ever written. [Laughs.] And it says a lot of what I want to say. And says it musically as well as dramatically. And as the child of musicians, that means a lot to me. I have absolutely no doubt that if any of my work lasts, that’s one of the things that’s going to last.

MW: Finally, I understand that both you and your friend, the late writer Maurice Sendak (Where The Wild Things Are), appeared briefly in Angels.

KUSHNER: Yeah, if you watch near the beginning, when they go to the cemetery and the rabbis are waiting for a bus to take them back to Crown Heights. And Louis comes up and talks to Rabbi Chemelwitz, who’s played by Meryl Streep. And the rabbi sitting right next to Rabbi Chemelwitz is me, and then the rabbi sitting right next to me is Maurice.

MW: Have you ever appeared in your own work like that before or since?

KUSHNER: Angels was my first film. I’ve never been on stage, and I have no interest in being on stage.

MW: So we shouldn’t expect to see you again like that?

KUSHNER: I was there the whole time but I didn’t get a cameo in Lincoln. And I wasn’t in Munich. Maybe in my next thing with Spielberg that I’m working on I’ll be able to have a small part, I don’t know. I really don’t have any grand ambitions. I’ve always wanted to be a judge on Law & Order or The Good Wife. And I’ve let everybody who works on those shows know that I think I would be really good as one of their judges, who just sits there assessing, “Overruled!” “Sustained!” But nobody has taken me up on it yet.

MW: Well, once they do you can add Law & Order to your Playbill bio, just as so many Broadway actors do, as a different kind of marker that you’ve made it.

KUSHNER: I know, yeah. I could develop a natural sideline for whenever I become too old and crazy to write plays anymore.

The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures runs to Dec. 21, at Washington, D.C.’s Jewish Community Center, 1529 16th St. NW. Tickets are $30 to $60. Call 202-518-9400 or visit washingtondcjcc.org.

Doug Rule covers the arts, theater, music, food, nightlife and culture as contributing editor for Metro Weekly.

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