Wrestling With Angels, Playwright Tony Kushner | A Film by Academy AwardŽ-winning Director Freida Lee Mock
Synopsis Print E-mail

“Fiercely political, deeply personal, incredibly intelligent, funny, poignant, hopeful, and immensely spiritual, Kushner’s work is a bright shining light.”

         David Courier, Sundance 2006

Wrestling With Angels is a feature documentary film about the Pulitzer and Tony Award-winning playwright Tony Kushner (Angels in America, Caroline or Change, Homebody/Kabul).  It tells the story of a relentlessly creative spirit at work and of how Kushner, raised in the Deep South in Lake Charles, Louisiana, would become an outspoken activist, a compassionate spokesperson for outsiders, and one of today’s most important and entertaining playwrights.  At its core the film explores the mystery of creativity, its sources and Kushner's compelling plays that are set against the moral and politcal concerns of our times. The story of Kushner as an artist and activist is also the story of a father and son relationship. Finally, it is the inspiring tale of how a passionately committed person can make a difference for social justice.


Wrestling With Angels takes place against the backdrop of three tumultuous years in America from September 11, 2001 to the 2004 Presidential election.  The film features acclaimed theater and movie actors in unforgettable, entertaining scenes from Kushner’s new work – Marcia Gay Harden in a gut-wrenchingly funny performance as Laura Bush in Only We Who Guard the Mystery Shall Be Unhappy; Meryl Streep pleading to God in a moving reading of Kushner’s Prayer on AIDS; and Emma Thompson crashing through the ceiling as the prophetic angel in Angels in America;.  


The film is structured around three acts that encapsulate the broad themes of Kushner’s work.  Act I — As a Citizen of the World displays Kushner’s concern with global issues. In riveting scenes from his one act play where Marcia Gay Harden reads to dead Iraqi children and from his play on Afghanistan, Homebody/Kabul, Kushner explores our global responsibility in an age of terrorism.  Act II — Mama, I’m a Homosexual Mama dramatizes Kushner’s concern with national issues focusing on the AIDS crisis and gay rights through his personal story of  “coming out;” through insight into the creative arc of his celebrated epic play Angels in America; and with his candid and humorous talk about Gay Pride at JP Morgan Chase.  Act III — Collective Action to Overcome Injustice reveals the influence of Kushner’s Jewish heritage in his passionate concern for social justice, expressed in deeply personal terms.  Moving scenes from his play on Jewish immigration, Why Should It Be Easy When It Can Be Hard; from the children’s holocaust opera Brundibar; and from the musical Caroline, or Change — all express Kushner’s belief in collective action to overcome injustice, especially as it concerns women and children.    


At heart Wrestling With Angels explores Tony Kushner’s relentless struggle to find creative expression for deep and fundamental truths, and through the power and intimacy of live theater, vivid characters and rich dialogue, to provide a national dialogue on some of our most pressing concerns — war, race, class, the AIDS pandemic, gay and lesbian rights, genocide and our global responsibility in the Middle East.  


This film is a testament to the power of an artist and activist to provoke and inspire the best in all of us.

Cast & Cameos Print E-mail

Wrestling with Angels: Playwright Tony Kushner


Tony Kushner

Tony Kusher was born in Manhattan. At the age of two his parents, both professional musicians, moved to Lake Charles, Louisiana where his father took charge of the family business, the Kushner Lumber Company while continuing to work as a musician. (At 18, his mother was the first bassoonist for the New York City Opera.) His parents introduced Tony to music, poetry and the evils of McCarthyism. Tony dates his interest in the theater to early memories of seeing his mother onstage in local plays. He also recalls from childhood ‘fairly clear memories of being gay since I was six.” He did not, however, ‘come out’ until after he tried psychotherapy at age 20 in an attempt to change his sexual orientation. Kushner grew up during the civil rights era, attending an integrated high school. He studied medieval history at Columbia and received a masters in theater directing from NYU.

Kushner’s first play, A Bright Room Called Day, is set in the Weimar Republic right before the rise of Hitler. He wrote the play as a parable about what he saw developing in the U.S. with the election of Reagan as President in l980. His plays include Hydriotaphia, or the Death of Dr. Browne; Angels in America, Parts One and Two; Slavs!; Homebody/Kabul; and Caroline, or Change. His series of five short plays include East Coast Ode to Howard Jarvis and G. David Schine in Hell.

His adaptations include Corneille’s The Illusion; Ansky’s The Dybbuk; Brecht’s The Good Person of Szechuan; Goethe’s Stella; and the English-language libretti for two operas: Krasa’s Brundibar and Martinu’s Comedy on the Bridge.

His books include Brundibar, a picture book for children illustrated by Maurice Sendak; The Art of Maurice Sendak, l980-The Present; Thinking about the Long Standing Problems of Virtue and Happiness; and Wrestling With Zion: Progressive Jewish-American response to the Israel-Palestinian Conflict, co-edited with Alisa Solomon.  

Kushner wrote the screenplay adaptation of Angels of America for the six-hour Emmy Award-winning movie of the same title and wrote the screenplay Munich for Steven Spielberg.

Besides the Pulitzer, Kushner has received numerous awards including the Spirit of Justice Award from the Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders (GLAD), the Award of Courage from AMFAR, committed to eradicating AIDS, and a Cultural Achievement Award from the National Foundation for Jewish Culture. 

Marcia Gay Harden

The Academy Award-winning actress appears as Harper Pitt in Kushner’s original Broadway play Angels in America and gives a hilarious portrayal as Laura Bush in Kushner’s newest work – in - progress Only We Who Guard the Mystery Shall be Unhappy, a title taken from Dostoevsky’s Brother’s Karamazov.

Meryl Streep

The Academy Award-winning actress appears as Joe Pitt’s mother Hannah in the movie version of Kushner’s Angels in America and at an AMFAR event where Streep gives a moving reading of Kushner’s Prayer on AIDS written ten years earlier, reflecting its relevancy now as then to the AIDS pandemic.

Emma Thompson

The Academy Award-winning actress appears as the Angel in the movie Angels in America delivering a message to the Aids-stricken Prior Walter.

Mike Nichols

The Academy Award winner directs a stellar cast of actors in the HBO movie version of Angels in America and worked closely with Kushner in adapting the play to the screen.

Linda Emond

The acclaimed stage actress gives an astonishing performance as the dysfunctional British housewife who seeks adventure in Afghanistan in Kushner’s newest drama Hombody/Kabul, including a 50-minute opening monologue.  In the play Kushner raises questions about our responsibility in an era of global terrorism.

George C. Wolfe

A Tony Award-winning director, Wolfe’s Broadway plays include Caroline, or Change, Topdog/Underdog, Elaine Stritch: At Liberty, The Tempest, Angels in America, Millennium Approaches and Perestroika.   He recently directed the movie Lackawanna Blues and has been the producer at the Public Theater since 1993.  He wrote The Colored Museum, Jelly’s Last Jam and The Wild Party.  George Wolfe was named a “Living Landmark” by the New York Landmarks Conservancy.


Tonya Pinkins

The Tony Award-winning actress (Jelly’s Last Jam) plays Caroline Thibodeaux, a black maid working for a Southern Jewish family in the musical Caroline, or Change, Kushner’s most autobiographical play.   The story focuses on her relationship with 8-year-old Noah Gellman whose mother has died of cancer.  In this family drama set in the civil rights era in the 60’s, Kushner explores issues of race and class.  

Harrison Chad

The Broadway child actor, who plays 8 year old Noah Gellman in the musical Caroline, or Change, has appeared in Les Misrables, Beauty and the Beast and Peter Pan, and such movies as Charlotte’s Web and Tarzan II.

Anika Noni Rose

The Tony Award winning actress plays Emmie Thibodeaux, Caroline’s strong-willed daughter in the musical Caroline, or Change.  Emmie embraces the changes taking place in the South during the civil rights era and sings about a brighter future for herself, compared to that of her mother’s.  

Maurice Sendak

The acclaimed illustrator and writer of Where the Wild Things Are, the Night Kitchen, Outside Over There and dozens of acclaimed books for children and adults, Sendak collaborated with Kushner on the opera and children’s book Brundibar and is the subject of a major book by Kushner, The Art of Maurice Sendak, l980 to the present.

Oskar Eustis

Theater director and Artistic Director of the Public Theater today, Oskar Eustis while at San Francisco’s Eureka Theater commissioned Kushner to write a play of his choosing which became the seven-hour epic Angels in America, A Gay Fantasia on National Themes.  As a close friend and dramaturg, Eustis and Kushner continue to collaborate.

Ela Weisberger

Ela is one of only l00 out of l5, 000 children who survived the holocaust at the Czech Theresiensdat concentration camp.  At age twelve Ela played the role of the cat 55 times in the children’s opera Brundibar performed at the camp, and appeared in the Nazi propaganda film The Fuhrer Gives the Jews a City about this ‘model’ camp.  Today Ela lives in New York and regularly speaks to children when the opera Brundibar is performed.

Jeanine Tesori

The award-winning composer wrote the score for Thoroughly Modern Millie, Twelfth Night, and Violet.  For four years Tesori collaborated with Kushner and George C. Wolfe on the musical Caroline, or Change.  She also performed and was the musical director at Kushner’s wedding to Mark.  She is writing the Broadway musical Shrek.


Cameo Appearances

In Angels in America

Jeffrey Wright as Belize and Mr. Lieds in the HBO movie
Mary Louise Parker as the pill-popping wife Harper Pitt in the HBO movie
Justin Kirk as Prior in the HBO movie
Ben Shenkman as Louis in the HBO movie

Ron Leibman as Roy Cohn in the Broadway play
Joe Mantello as Louis in the Broadway play
Stephen Spinella, the Tony winner as Prior Walter in the Broadway play
Ellen McLaughlin as the Angel, a role she originated and as the Polish countess in Kushner’s It’s an Undoing World
Kathleen Chalfant appears as the Mormon mother Hannah Pitt and the doctor in the Broadway play and as Grandma Sara in It’s an Undoing World

In It’s an Undoing World or Why Should It be Easy When it Can be Hard? a play about Jewish immigration and breast cancer

Swoozie Kurtz plays the middle daughter, Tony’s Aunt Martha who has breast cancer
Marian Seldes plays the eldest daughter, Tony’s Aunt Lucy who died from breast cancer
Maria Tucci plays the youngest daughter, Tony’s mother Sylvia who died from breast cancer
Wendy Wasserstein, the acclaimed playwright, plays the solemn grandchild
Alice Playten, who made her Broadway debut as Baby Louise in Gypsy, plays the Voice of the Teapot and also plays Grandma Gellman in Caroline, or Change.  
Naomi Goldberg, the choreographer and dancer, inspired this play by Kushner
Alicia Svigals, composer, violinist and musical director, considered to be the world’s leading klezmer fiddler, founded the Klezmatics, the Jewish roots band and her current group the all-female Mikveh.  

In the play Homebody/Kabul

Dylan Baker, distinctive in the film Happiness and on Broadway and off-Broadway, plays the husband Milton Ceiling who goes to Afghanistan with his daughter Priscilla to find his wife the Homebody.
Bill Camp plays Quango Twistleton, the lonely aid worker for the British government in Kabul.
Rita Wolf plays Mahala, the highly educated librarian distraught over the Taliban.
Firdous Bamji plays the Taliban minister Mullah Aftar Durrani.
Kelly Hutchison plays Priscilla, the unemployed, adrift daughter of the Homebody.  

In the musical Caroline, or Change

Veanne Cox plays the stepmother of Noah, Rose Gellman.
Capathia Jenkins plays the role of the washing machine
Marva Hicks, Ramona Keller and Tracy Nicole Chapman play the roles of the radio
Alice Playten, plays Noah’s grandmother Gellman

Additional Cameo Appearances

Frank Rich
, the New York Times writer and former drama critic
Larry Kramer, the playwright (Normal Heart) and founder of Act Up
Terrence McNally, playwright (Master Class)
Paul Rudnick, playwright
Anne Scurria, a long-time member of the Trinity Repertory Company, plays the Angel in the Laura Bush play Only We Who Guard the Mystery Shall be Unhappy
Michael McElroy, acclaimed Broadway actor (Big River, Rent, The Who’s Tommy), is the featured soloist at Tony and Mark’s wedding and sings “I Only Have Eyes for You.”
William Kushner, Tony’s father, received his masters in the clarinet at Julliard and has been the long-time conductor of the Lake Charles Symphony Orchestra.  Today he is the third generation family head of the Kushner Lumber Company, along with the Berard family in Louisiana.   

Plays by Tony Kushner

A Bright Room Called Day, l987
 East Code Ode to Howard Jarvis, l996
Hydriotaphia, l987 
G. David Schine, l996  
Yes Yes No No, l987 Terminating, l998
The Illusion, l988 adaptation of Corneille Homebody/Kabul 2001
Angels in America, Part One, 1991  Caroline, or Change 2003
Angels in America, Part Two, 1992                                      
 Good Person of Szechuan, adaptation of Brecht
Slavs!, 1994   Stella, adaptation of Goethe
Opera Brundibar, adaptation of Krasa Opera Comedy on the the Bridge, adaptation
Henry Box Brown (in progress) Notes on Akiba, 1995
Dybbuk, 1995 Only We Who Guard the Mystery Shall be Unhappy (2003 Work in Progress)
It's An Undoing World, 1995
 Munich (Screenplay)