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Angels in America | Study Guide

Tony Kushner

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Tony Kushner | Biography


Tony Kushner was born in New York City on July 16, 1956, but he grew up in Lake Charles, Louisiana. His parents were classical musicians who met while playing for the Orlando Symphony, his mother as first bassoonist and his father as first clarinetist. When Kushner was two years old, his parents decided to stop touring to better care for Kushner and his younger sister, Lesley. The family moved to Louisiana, and his father went to work in the family business, a lumberyard.

Kushner's childhood was not easy as a gay Jewish kid growing up in a white Southern town. It was complicated by the fact that his own parents did not accept his sexuality. His mother was in denial about it; his father wished to "fix it," advising him "not to surrender to homosexuality." Perhaps feeling like such an outsider accounts for why Kushner works so hard as a playwright to have the audience identify with the marginalized people who populate his plays—people rendered powerless by their circumstances. Kushner did become interested in literature and theater because of his home life, however. He grew up amid books and music, and he was moved at a young age by watching his mother act in community theater—and seeing her performance reduce the audience to tears. That is when he first realized the power of writing and performance.

In 1974 Kushner returned to New York to attend Columbia University; he graduated with a degree in medieval studies. He went on to study theater directing at New York University. Kushner began writing in the early 1980s, forming a theater group with fellow students.

In 1985 Kushner had a dream about a friend, the first of his acquaintances to die from AIDS. In his dream, an angel crashed through the sick man's ceiling as he was dying. Kushner wrote a poem about the experience called "Angels in America." The image and the title became the basis for Angels in America. However, at the time of writing the play, Kushner had not had anyone close to him die of AIDS, nor had he been caregiver to someone with AIDS. He based the caregiving and abandonment plot thread on his close friendship with a straight woman who had severe health problems. "I have spattered our relationship all over this play," Kushner said of his friend.

Millennium Approaches was first produced in a workshop at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles in 1990. Angels in America, Parts One and Two (including Millennium Approaches and Perestroika) premiered at Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles in 1992.

Kushner has continued to write for the stage, including a number of plays and a musical, as well as working as a screenwriter and a children's book author (Brundibar, illustrated by Maurice Sendak, author of Where the Wild Things Are). A recipient of the National Medal of Arts in 2013, Kushner lives in New York with his husband, Mark Harris.

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