Tony Kushner, Oracle of the Upper West Side

Tony Kushner photographed at the Astor Place subway station in New York City on Oct. 22, 2021.Credit…Sean Donnola

Tony Kushner, Oracle of the Upper West Side

The most important living American playwright has a number of new projects on the horizon — and plenty more to say about how to make and enjoy art in an era of ongoing turbulence.

By A.O. Scott

Nov. 30, 2021

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“MY FAVORITE QUOTE,” Tony Kushner says, “is from an American anarchist named Voltairine de Cleyre.”

It’s a warm Tuesday in October, and we’re talking on a bench in a quiet patch of Central Park, right behind John Quincy Adams Ward’s statue of William Shakespeare, which has stood since 1872 at the bottom of the park’s Literary Walk, a popular promenade dedicated to writers. Kushner is an enthusiastic quoter, citing famous and obscure people from the past as if they were old friends; de Cleyre, an associate of the turn-of-the-20th-century American revolutionary Emma Goldman, was a fervent advocate for workers’ rights and sexual equality — exactly the kind of little-known but nonetheless consequential figure that occasionally shows up in Kushner’s writing. The sentence in question, it will turn out, may or may not be from de Cleyre, and may or may not be exactly as Kushner cites it — we were on a park bench, after all, not in a library — but whoever said it first, it’s now among my favorite Kushner quotes: “Dare to participate in the great historical mistake of your time.”

The particular mistake he has in mind is “West Side Story,” a new movie, directed by Steven Spielberg, based on the beloved, problematic 1957 Broadway musical set among the white ethnic and Puerto Rican youth gangs of Manhattan. The screenplay, which revises Arthur Laurents’s original book, is by Kushner, who has been collaborating with Spielberg for nearly 20 years, through “Munich” (2005), “Lincoln” (2012) and other unconsummated and upcoming films.

Kushner doesn’t mean that he regrets the project. On the contrary, he’s intensely proud of the ways he, Spielberg and the rest of the creative team have reimagined a show that’s itself a reimagining of William Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet.” Citing de Cleyre seems to be his way of acknowledging the risks and contradictions inherent in any ambitious work of art that tackles the thorny American realities of race, class, immigration and identity. But he’s also, in the spirit of the present time, anticipating some of the criticism that might greet a 65-year-old white man’s attempt to tell a story largely about Latino teenagers.

Before we move on from de Cleyre, we’re interrupted by one of those New York encounters that are the city’s way of mocking the idea of coincidence. “Hey, there’s Tony,” someone calls out. I also go by Tony, so Kushner and I turn our heads in unison to see a distinguished-looking couple approaching, accompanied by an equally distinguished-looking dog. For a moment, I think the silver-haired man with the neatly trimmed beard is one of my in-laws or former editors but, in fact, it’s Steven Spielberg, out on a stroll with his wife, the actress Kate Capshaw, in town from California to celebrate their 30th anniversary.

A few days before, Spielberg and Kushner had been in Los Angeles, wrapping production of “The Fabelmans,” a story based on Spielberg’s own childhood. They had written the script together on Zoom over eight weeks in late 2020. “The fastest Tony Kushner has ever written anything in his entire life,” Spielberg says by phone a week later, describing the process for their previous collaborations: “Tony and I would meet about a story, I would download my entire position on the story and how I felt about it and Tony would go away and he’d write. He’d come back in seven years or five years with a script.”

The playwright recites a joke about gefilte fish.CreditCredit…Jordan Taylor Fuller

Very Steven Spielberg” is a famous line from “Angels in America,” the two-part, more-than-seven-hour play that established Kushner as one of the leading dramatists of our time. “Angels” premiered in 1991, long before his creative partnership with Spielberg began; in the play, the filmmaker’s name is invoked to signal that something spectacular and cinematic is happening onstage — the arrival of a literal angel in America. The sudden appearance of Spielberg himself in Central Park strikes me, by contrast, as very Tony Kushner.

He has an imagination that brings to vivid life characters from history and fantasy, whether the 16th president Abraham Lincoln, the ghost of the 20th-century convicted Soviet spy Ethel Rosenberg in “Angels” or even a singing 1960s-era washing machine in “Caroline, or Change,” his 2004 Broadway musical that returned this season after Covid-19 delayed the revival’s opening last year. These characters’ presence makes the world feel at once bigger and smaller, as the grand dramas and abstractions of history and politics settle into ordinary human interactions. The moment in Central Park feels similar: Here’s the most important living American playwright and the most successful living American filmmaker conversing in the shadow of the greatest writer in the English language. But it’s also just four people chatting in the park — about politics, movies, family, the weather — while a dog at their feet studies the pigeons and the passing toddlers doze in their strollers.

CENTRAL PARK LIES adjacent to the Upper West Side of “West Side Story,” where, six decades of urban renewal and gentrification later, Kushner lives with his husband, the film historian and journalist Mark Harris. They met at a party — and also, around the same time, in an AOL chat room — in 1998, then married in 2007. (Harris and I are professional acquaintances and share a book editor, and he contributes to this magazine.) In its in-between, mid-80s incarnation, Central Park figures prominently in “Angels in America”; the last scene, a poignant, defiant invocation of resilience and solidarity in the face of AIDS, takes place at the Bethesda Fountain, at 72nd Street midway between the East and West Sides, where the 19th-century sculptor Emma Stebbins’s eight-foot bronze statue, “Angel of the Waters,” seems to float above the surface.

“Angels,” despite its continent-spanning title and scenes set in Utah and heaven, is a quintessential New York play. It draws on the specific demographic and geographic contours of the city to advance its capacious, intricate ideas about identity, ethical responsibility and human survival in a time of pandemic and political retrenchment. Kushner’s New York is a magnet for misfits of all kinds — Jewish, queer, renegade Mormon — but hardly an earthly paradise. Heaven is described as “a city much like San Francisco” (where “Angels” premiered at the Eureka Theater Company), though that’s where you go when you’re dead. New York is where everyone lives. In fact, the play’s rallying cry is “more life!” — a political demand during the AIDS crisis that might as well be the city’s motto. In what other place does such a cross-section of humanity — drag queens, underemployed intellectuals, lonely housewives, closeted Republicans, actual angels — commingle and contend? Where else does Kushner’s blend of high eloquence and borscht belt timing sound like the local vernacular? Nowhere but the city, where Kushner has lived since he arrived to attend college in 1974. (Speaking of God, one of the characters says to an audience of angels: “If after all this destruction, if after all the terrible days of this terrible century, He returned to see … how much suffering His abandonment had created, if all He has to offer is death. … You should sue the bastard.”)

A dance number from the new “West Side Story” film, featuring David Alvarez (center) as Bernardo.Credit…Niko Tavernise © 2020 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All Rights Reserved

Kushner grew up in Lake Charles, La., the setting of “Caroline, or Change,” the Broadway production of which had just started previews when we met, but even after five decades here, he is not, in any provincial, Woody Allen sense, a New York writer, obsessed with the social minutiae of a few select codes. And yet he’s undoubtedly a New York character. That isn’t code for Jewish or gay, though what the city owes its gay and Jewish citizens is beyond measure: It includes, among much else, the original “West Side Story,” created by Laurents, Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim and Jerome Robbins, all of whom can be claimed by both tribes.

But it’s Kushner’s voice, in person and on the page, that is New York: erudite and profane, ironic and earnest, a brilliant cascade of points and counterpoints, jokes and footnotes. Jeanine Tesori, 60, who composed the music for “Caroline” and was part of the new “West Side Story” team, told me that “there’s no better debater than Tony Kushner.” This is true less in the high school forensic squad sense — though he was on the debate team as a teenager — than in the park-bench, deli-counter sense. Also in the passionate and demanding artistic-collaborator sense, which was Tesori’s point; she was referring to how intently he focused on every nuance in the “West Side Story” libretto. Argument is synonymous with many things: thought, breath, democracy, life. But argument is also secular Jewish scripture, encapsulated in the old joke that for every two Jews, there are three shuls. It’s likewise an undeniable element of gay style. The counterpointing of quasi-rabbinical disputation with camp-tinged sarcasm remains one of the central literary achievements of “Angels in America.”

Not that the play or its author is in any way parochial. “I’m not a tribalist,” he says. “I believe absolutely in identity politics as a great strategy for organizing power. I believe that oppression can create distinct cultures.” A brief pause. “At least recognizable cultures. They’re not distinct, because all boundaries are always blurred and are meant to be crossed.” This is an abstract way of explaining something that, throughout his work (including the six major plays, the Spielberg scripts and a steady stream of translations, adaptations, opera libretti and occasional essays), is breathtakingly specific — his ability to cross into the mental, emotional and experiential worlds of people who aren’t like him in a demographic or ideological sense. He isn’t Walt Whitman. He doesn’t mystically contain multitudes. He listens and studies and thinks.

Even in his 60s, his curly hair still dark and his short beard mostly gray, Kushner has a youthful energy that isn’t quite boyish but that might be described as studentlike. Maybe it’s the small round frames of his spectacles, or the iron gray denim jacket over the black T-shirt or the effortless, enthusiastic erudition of his speech, but he seems close to the Platonic ideal of a graduate teaching assistant, a guy you might encounter just uptown in a Columbia University classroom. The one who is a better teacher than the professor, and also much kinder and who is 100 times smarter than you, even though he couldn’t be that much older. Spielberg, recalling the research that went into “Lincoln,” quantified it this way: “I only read a dozen books on Lincoln. Tony read 400.”

A portrait, “Tony Kushner With Karl Marx Pillows” (1995), taken by Robert Giard in New York City.Credit…Robert Giard, copyright Estate of Robert Giard

KUSHNER HIMSELF WENT to Columbia, where he started as a medieval studies major before switching to English literature. But his New York roots go deeper than that. His maternal grandmother, a former seamstress, once heard Emma Goldman give a speech in Yiddish in Lower Manhattan (a detail that made its way into “Angels in America”). Kushner eventually learned that, around the same time, “she was living in a boardinghouse on St. Marks Place, and she was probably working as a seamstress in the area. This would have been 1911, so she would have been there during the Triangle Shirtwaist fire” — a grim incident in American labor history that took the lives of 146 mostly female, mostly immigrant garment workers.

This speculation, recounted as we were comparing notes about our left-wing Jewish ancestors, hints at how Kushner thinks about history and geography. The important events we learn about in textbooks — the Triangle fire, the battle to ratify the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery in the United States and is central to the plot of “Lincoln”— are never distant from the everyday lives of actual people. Even works of imagination have an obligation to the truth of the past. “Tony doesn’t make up the history,” Tesori says. “The history is there.”

This can get complicated. For instance: “West Side Story.” Spielberg first proposed the project to Kushner over breakfast in 2014 at Cafe Luxembourg, a stalwart bistro on West 70th Street. After several years and five drafts, they had run into a wall on a different project, an adaptation of David I. Kertzer’s 1997 book “The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara,” a grand historical epic about an antisemitic crime perpetrated by the Vatican, set during the Italian Risorgimento. That morning, Spielberg switched tracks, in part because “he likes to scare himself,” Kushner says — and the playwright was, to say the least, a bit startled: “I went home and I said to Mark, ‘You’re not going to believe this. He’s lost his mind. He wants to do ‘West Side Story.’”

The challenge was not only recapturing some of the power of the original Broadway show and of the 1961 movie musical — which Kushner says has “the greatest cultural impact in various ways, except for maybe ‘The Wizard of Oz,’” in cinematic history — but also to right some of their wrongs, notably with respect to casting. The film, directed by Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins, earned an Oscar for Rita Moreno in the supporting role of Anita, but she was the only Puerto Rican member of the main cast: María, the lead, was played by the white actress Natalie Wood. In the decades since, even as the film has remained popular and the stage show a fixture of high school auditoriums, “West Side Story” has come to seem dated, even offensive. Last year, the Puerto Rican writer Carina del Valle Schorske published an op-ed in The New York Times with the headline, “Let ‘West Side Story’ and Its Stereotypes Die,” in which she argued that “the show’s creators didn’t know, or didn’t seem to care to know, much about their own material.”

Ellen McLaughlin, who played the Angel in U.S. productions of “Angels in America” from the first workshop through the original Broadway run, being fit for her wings.Credit…Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

“I was aware that there was a degree of criticism among Puerto Rican thinkers and artists about the representation of Puerto Ricans in West Side Story. [But] I didn’t really feel, and I don’t feel, that the musical is racist at all,” Kushner continues. “I would never have done it if I did.” Still, he knows there’s room for improvement: He cited, in particular, the way the lyrics of the anthem “America” express a view of Puerto Rico as a place of unmitigated hardship — “you ugly island, island of tropic diseases” — one that’s based in Jewish immigrants’ (and, potentially, its creators’) own feelings about Eastern Europe, which were shaped by recent memories of poverty and pogroms.

The cast, which features the newcomers Rachel Zegler as María and David Alvarez as Bernardo, is more culturally diverse and younger than before — appropriately, since they portray teenagers who aren’t old enough, as Kushner explains, “to know what death is.” Tony and María, the Romeo and Juliet equivalents, fall in love across boundaries of communal hatred. When Tony takes the life of María’s brother Bernardo (Tybalt in Romeo and Juliet), the young couple’s fate is sealed. Kushner’s book emphasizes that tragedy partly by restoring the original Broadway order of the songs, which the 1961 film had changed. “Tony felt that ‘West Side Story’ had very valuable things to contribute to our understanding of the consequences of racism, xenophobia and poverty,” Spielberg says. “He kept saying that this is going to be more relevant now than it was in 1957. And that turned out to be the case.” And Kushner signed on, in part, because he wanted to explore not only the persistence of intergroup hatred but also the way the story is framed by gentrification and economic striving. In the late 1950s, a working-class Puerto Rican neighborhood is about to be uprooted by the cranes and bulldozers of the ruthless city planner Robert Moses, disrupting the life of the community to make way for, among other developments, the gleaming Lincoln Center arts complex.

Still, their update isn’t about improving the past, or even casting a judgmental shadow over a beloved classic, which both collaborators grew up on. “I was a good little gay boy,” Kushner says, noting that he and his two siblings (he’s the middle kid) were the children of musicians: His father, William, was a conductor and clarinetist; his mother, Sylvia, played the bassoon. Spielberg, now 74, recalls that the album “was the first musical theater record my parents ever brought home.” Tesori says she remains in awe of the “radicalism” of what Bernstein and his collaborators accomplished. Kushner goes even further, inscribing their gesamtkunstwerk — a heady fusion of ballet, opera, Shakespearean tragedy and nascent youth culture — in a pantheon of revolutionary modernist masterpieces. “You know, like [Igor Stravinsky’s] ‘The Rite of Spring’ [1913], or [Stephen Sondheim’s] ‘Company’ [1970] — these moments when people come up with something brand-new, and there’s some daring, radical energy trapped inside it,” he says. “A lot of [Jean-Luc] Godard. ‘Jaws.’ ‘Close Encounters.’ ‘Taxi Driver.’ ‘Mean Streets.’ ‘Badlands.’ I’m sorry — I’ll stop, but you know these things where somebody’s doing something that’s never been done before and you just can feel it, and it will always be there.”

I do know. There’s one title to add to the list, a seismic event in the history of American theater that I happen to have seen myself.

Kushner at the Astor Place subway station.Credit…Sean Donnola

IN THE EARLY 1990s, when I was in my mid-20s and he was just past 50, my father came out as gay. How that came to pass — the years in the closet and the decision to exit — is his story to tell, not mine. But one of the ways he told it at the time, to the people who loved him, was through “Angels in America.”

When “Millennium Approaches,” the first part of Kushner’s now-canonical “Gay Fantasia on National Themes,” opened on Broadway in 1993, my father started buying tickets, for himself and everyone else. Throughout the rest of the run, as “Millennium” was joined later that year by its companion, “Perestroika,” there would be more tickets. As I recall, we could go back whenever we wanted — my mother, my sister, my wife and I, other friends and relations. In the decades since, I’ve lost track of how many times I went, and stopped trying to calculate my father’s credit card bills. What I’m certain of is that I saw three of the four Roy Cohns in that first New York run (Ron Liebman, Larry Pine and F. Murray Abraham), and that some of the characters (Prior Walter, Belize, Hannah Pitt) now seem like people who have always been in my life. I can’t think of a play I know better.

Or maybe I should say that knows me better. This isn’t a matter of literal identification, though like most people who qualify as complicatedly Jewish and vaguely intellectual, I inevitably see a lot of myself in the character of Louis Ironson, the perpetually guilt-ridden overthinker with a theoretical answer for everything and a practical inability to do what’s right. For a while I wondered if my father, who is not Jewish, saw himself more as the visionary Mayflower descendant Prior Walter or the self-negating Mormon Joe Pitt, but that was the wrong question.

The sense of recognition — which is to say of being recognized — that “Angels in America” has elicited from so many people over the years comes from how clearly and specifically it represents experiences that might have seemed both too intimate and too enormous to contemplate: the devastation of the AIDS pandemic and the politics of gay visibility that emerged in response to it; the cynicism and disenchantment, felt across various American liberal and leftist denominations, of the Reagan years; the weird intimation that, with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War, history had either reached its terminus or opened a confusing new chapter.

“Angels” was, in part, a re-enchantment of the American story, an attempt, by sheer force of imaginative and rational will, to square a tragic reality with an ideal of human progress. “The play doesn’t describe a time of great triumph,” Kushner said, in an interview for “The World Only Spins Forward,” a 2018 oral history of the production. “It describes a time of great terror, beneath the surface of which the seeds of change are beginning to push upward and through.” Capturing that movement required a fusion of political didacticism, unabashed melodrama, stage supernaturalism and sitcom beats. The scale of the play is grand, but the tone is conversational, the epic gestures grounded in the bedrock of the everyday, the soaring themes articulated through arguments among friends, lovers, ex-friends, ex-lovers, enemies and chance acquaintances. Roy Cohn (an actual person, a lawyer, fixer and notorious hatchet man for Joseph McCarthy, whom Kushner transformed into a charismatic literary villain on the order of John Milton’s Satan) spars with Belize, a Black nurse, who mixes it up with Louis, an avatar of ambivalence, whose lover Prior Walter literally wrestles with an angel.

Stephen Spinella as Prior Walter and Joe Mantello as Louis Ironson in the 1993-94 Broadway production of “Angels in America: Millennium Approaches.”Credit…Photofest

Change is visited upon all of them, whether they embrace it or struggle against it. There may have been references, idioms and moments that resonated with my own family history — the entwining of lefty-Jewish and high-goyish styles is a cultural double helix not far removed from my own DNA — but in 1993, the power of “Angels” came from a more primal source. My family was changing. I was changing. The world was changing. And here was a play — a playwright — able to perceive how those changes might be connected, to capture a frequently dissonant, occasionally harmonious counterpoint of personal destinies, collective histories and metaphysical principles in a way that felt like the truth.

“Angels in America,” Kushner’s second full-length play, after “A Bright Room Called Day” (1985), is one of those early works that define an artist’s legacy no matter what else follows. But as the play itself reminds us, the world only spins forward. In “Caroline, or Change,” completed a decade later, the personal lives of two families in Lake Charles intersect with the public dramas of 1963: the Kennedy assassination; the civil rights movement; Vietnam. The action mostly unfolds on three levels of a typical middle-class house: the upper floors, where the distant clarinetist Stuart Gellman and his wife, Rose Stopnick Gellman, struggle to raise Stuart’s sulking 8-year-old son, Noah; and the basement, where the family’s maid, Caroline Thibodeaux, keeps company with a washing machine, a dryer and a radio (all of whom find occasion to burst into song). Noah’s mother, Betty, a bassoonist, has recently died of cancer, and Rose is his new stepmother, an old friend of Stuart and Betty’s from New York struggling to heal the family and maintain her own equilibrium in alien surroundings. There are some overt parallels with Kushner’s own family: His parents were both musicians. (His mother, Sylvia, died of lung cancer at 67 in 1990, while Kushner was writing the second part of “Angels.”) Noah, a sensitive, hyperarticulate proto-gay child, is a pretty clear authorial surrogate.

The center of the story, though — the person whose capacity and resistance to change the audience comes to feel most deeply — is Caroline, a divorced mother of four contending with her own pain. She is one of Kushner’s most incandescent creations, an operatic heroine whose passions and disappointments take shape in the interplay of performance, music and language. “The music lets you know how uncomfortable you should be feeling,” says Sharon D Clarke, the 56-year-old British stage star who plays Caroline with volcanic intensity and heroic restraint in the latest production.

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Caroline is a character who courts misunderstanding, whose very presence onstage evokes painful racial tropes. “I knew that when I was writing the show that I was playing around with at least two things that were really scary,” Kushner says. “One is a Black woman in a white maid’s uniform … and a show that was on a very important level about money, and about Blacks and Jews, and that also can push a lot of triggering things for Jewish people.” The “change” in the title literally refers to what’s left each week of Noah Gellman’s allowance, which Caroline retrieves from his pockets when she does the laundry. Rose tells Caroline to keep the money, both a clumsy attempt to teach the boy a lesson and a way to give Caroline a little something on top of her $30-a-week wages without actually giving her a raise.

Sharon D Clarke as Caroline Thibodeaux in the current Broadway revival of “Caroline, or Change.”Credit…Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

“The first time it was on Broadway,” Kushner says, “people would come up to me and say things that made me want to crawl under a seat. ‘Oh, I was raised by a Caroline, too,’ or ‘My best friend was my maid also when I was a little kid.’” Never mind that one of the last things Caroline says to Noah is that they “weren’t never friends,” and that the show works to subvert, at every turn, the sentimental clichés that its premise seems to summon, what Clarke calls the expectation of “natural nurturing.” “It is not about a magical Black person who comes to take care of a bunch of sad white people,” Kushner adds. “It’s about her. It doesn’t end with them. She doesn’t heal them. … I defend this very heatedly, but it’s good to remember that, when you dabble with these things, you are playing around with images of immense power and force.”

You also land yourself, in 2021, in a swirl of ongoing debates about representation, about how, to what extent — and, for that matter, whether — white artists can tell Black or Latino stories. Criticism has of late been leveled at works like Kathryn Bigelow’s “Detroit,” a 2017 film about the murder of three Black men during the city’s 1967 race riots; Jeanine Cummins’s 2020 novel, “American Dirt,” about a family’s migration from Mexico to the United States; and the 2019 Best Picture-winning “Green Book” (2018), an interracial buddy movie set in the segregated South. Meanwhile, calls for greater inclusion and representation across the arts have grown more insistent. As Kushner himself admits, “If Steven had come to me in 2020, after George Floyd’s murder, and said, ‘I want to do “West Side Story,” and I want you to write it,’ I would certainly have asked a very different set of questions.”

But he wouldn’t necessarily have turned it down. And even as he acknowledges the history of exclusion and misrepresentation in movies and theater, he is troubled by the impulse to erect hard boundaries and strict rules: “I have a profound disagreement,” he says, “with anyone who says that a person imagining another kind of person, another culture, is an act of violence or supremacism or appropriation. I absolutely believe that one of the great pleasures of art, and one of the great reasons that we have it, is to be able to witness leaps of empathic imagination.”

ONE WAY TO see beyond yourself is to look backward. In a section of his 1940 “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” a key text in the composition of “Angels in America,” the German-Jewish critic Walter Benjamin imagines the angel of history flying into the future with his face “turned toward the past.”

Indeed, Kushner’s best work is frequently retrospective, taking an angel’s-eye view of catastrophe and progress — of terror and darkness and the inklings of change sprouting in the gloom. All of his collaborations with Spielberg have been set in the past, and one of the reasons the scripts take so long to write is that he treats the conventions of period filmmaking with the rigor of a historian.

A scene from the 1993-94 Broadway production of “Angels in America: Perestroika,” including, from left, Kathleen Chalfant, Stephen Spinella, Joe Mantello and Jeffrey Wright.Credit…Joan Marcus/Photofest © Joan Marcus

When it premiered on Broadway, “Angels” already had a rearview quality to it. Up until the very end, when the story moves into the ’90s, the scenes are set in 1985 and ’86, in the midst of an era that already seemed, in 1993, to be fading. The G.O.P. was no longer in the White House. Americans were still dying of AIDS in large numbers, but persistent activism had compelled the political and medical establishments to start paying attention to the epidemic. When I taught the play to a class of college freshmen a few years later, they read it as a period piece, something from “back in the ’80s.” On a higher-brow note, the Yale literary panjandrum Harold Bloom included the play in his idiosyncratic, best-selling “The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages” in 1994, a sign that the test of time had already been stood. The 2003 HBO screen adaptation, directed by Mike Nichols, confirmed that impression, identifying the characters with movie stars — Al Pacino as Roy Cohn, Meryl Streep as Ethel Rosenberg and Hannah Pitt — and giving the luster and permanence of cinema to their stories.

But then, in the late 2010s, a few years after Barack Obama draped the National Medal of Arts over Kushner’s neck, “Angels” surged back into the present tense. A major revival in 2017 galvanized audiences in London and then, the next year, in New York, where the play once again felt undeniably relevant: raw, uncanny and unavoidable. Prior Walter’s closing vow that “we will be citizens” — an assertion of gay visibility that seemed to have been confirmed by the victory of marriage equality in much of the Western world — took on a different inflection against a backdrop of anti-immigrant agitation. Roy Cohn’s protégé, Donald Trump, was president, and lamenting his erstwhile mentor’s absence even as Cohn’s brand of cynical, mendacious, power-obsessed politics moved from behind the scenes into broad daylight, where it proved impervious to shame, mockery or indignant appeals to decency.

“It’s infinitely more frightening now than it was back in the ’80s,” Kushner says of his masterwork today. “Complete with the plague.” Having identified an aspect of our “one single catastrophe,” he is still observing it. What happens now is a new iteration of what was already happening. And so, the 1963 of “Caroline, or Change” is not a version of the past that an audience in 2021 can look at with complacency, congratulating ourselves on how far we’ve come. The first thing you see on the revival’s stage is a Confederate monument, a statue of “the South’s Defender” whose presence signifies the not-even-pastness of the past. And while there are some charming period details — and echoes of the soul, pop and gospel sounds of the time in Tesori’s score — there is nothing dated in the play itself. “Tony is quite prophetic,” Clarke says. When the play transferred to London in 2018 after its original run in Chichester, England, the actress remembers passing by far-right, racist demonstrators on her way to the theater. “After growing up as a Black British child dealing with the National Front and the British National Party,” she says, “now I was coming into work and dealing with Caroline and feeling the eyes of English Defense League guys looking at me, wanting me not to be on the street, and just feeling, ‘We ain’t moved on.’”

During the show’s long pandemic pause between London and Broadway, the United States was convulsed by the Black Lives Matter protests and plunged into another round of arguments on old themes: the relationship between law and order and white supremacy; the persistence of structural racism and racial inequality; the deep historical roots of present-day injustice. The people onstage discuss these same issues, very much in the present tense and with their eyes turned toward an ever-elusive future. Caroline’s teenage daughter, Emmie, is drawn toward activism, and the boldness with which she expresses her opinions worries her mother, who has learned to keep her head down and her thoughts to herself, at least around white people. At a Hanukkah dinner, where Emmie is helping her mother serve latkes to the extended Gellman clan, Emmie is lured into debate with Rose’s father, a dyed-in-the-wool old leftist visiting from New York. He scolds her for being insufficiently militant, and scorns the civil rights movement for being too pacific, too slow-moving, to effect real change.

Kushner and his husband, the writer Mark Harris, at their commitment ceremony in New York City in 2003, four years before they legally married.Credit…Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times

The ironies and tensions that ripple through the scene — the unexamined privilege of the white radical; Caroline’s unease among the employers who imagine themselves to be her allies; the impatience of the younger generation — will be familiar to anyone whose dinner table has been a site of political struggle. And no resolution to the conflict is offered, even as some small changes are visible. “Secret little tragedies” coexist with “costly, quiet victories.” Those phrases are sung one after the other near the end of the show, providing a musical landing place without settling the big issues. It’s not that the tragedies cancel out the victories but that they are bound up together.

IN ACT III, Scene 2 of “Millennium Approaches,” Louis asks, “Why has democracy succeeded in America?” It’s not exactly a rhetorical question, and Louis’s rambling attempt to answer it isn’t entirely persuasive, certainly not to his friend Belize, a Black, gay nurse who cares for men dying from AIDS-related illnesses, and who possesses an acute sense of the failures and compromises of the American experiment. (Louis’s monologue only ends when Belize, after trying to participate in the debate, finally responds, “POWER to the people! AMEN! … OH MY GOODNESS! Will you look at the time, I gotta. …”)

When we meet in Central Park for a second conversation (with no surprise appearances from major filmmakers), I tell Kushner that I think the argument between Louis and Belize — a defense of good intentions and progressive tendencies countered by an insistence on the hard structural facts of exclusion, oppression and hatred — is still ongoing, perhaps with more intensity and harder feelings than before.

We talk about that for a while, and also about how the censoriousness of the left isn’t symmetrical with the authoritarianism of the right, about what Kushner calls the “radical impatience of the young,” about Twitter and TikTok and the early 20th-century German playwright Bertolt Brecht, a hero of Kushner’s, who once said, “Don’t start from the good old things but the bad new ones.” We agree more than we disagree, but the conversation nonetheless has a bracing, combative energy.

Kushner’s stage and screenwriting consists of a great many family quarrels — passionate debates among people who are fundamentally on the same side. Louis and Belize share not only their love of Prior, Louis’s former lover, who they are afraid will die of complications from AIDS, but a wary, queer New York kinship. In “Lincoln,” much of the dramatic conflict takes place within the cabinet, the Congress and the Republican Party, people committed at least in principle to the defense of union and the abolition of slavery. In “Caroline, or Change,” the Southern white supremacist position is represented by that silent statue; the Gellmans are outsiders, some of whom imagine themselves to be on the angelic side of history. Kushner’s ability to call forth those family quarrels within liberalism — their endlessness, their passion — may ultimately be what marks him as a great New York voice. That’s the music of the city, after all. It’s also the music of democracy, the soundtrack to the perpetually embattled American experiment.

Which is in a scary place right now. Eventually, Kushner jokes that Louis’s rhetorical question might have to be amended or scrapped altogether. Democracy may not be succeeding in America, and the grand argument that connects President Lincoln to Caroline Thibodeaux may be heading toward a murderous Jets and Sharks rumble.

Neutrality, for Kushner, is never an option. “I always get annoyed when people talk about theater that preaches to the converted,” he says. “That’s so stupid. Who do you expect to find in your synagogue? … When I teach playwriting, I always tell my students — and it’s almost impossible to do this particular thing without having some sort of phantom audience in your head — that you should work really hard to populate that audience with people who fundamentally agree with you about certain things. Because if you don’t, then you start from a position of needing to educate them about that which you already know, which I think guarantees didacticism and a certain dullness. The place that you want to start is those great arguments that you have with your friends.”

What you want to do, in other words, is dare to participate in the great historical mistake of your time.

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