Tony Kushner set to receive Sandburg Literary Award: Chicago ‘supports my work’

“I was moved that it was given by a public library. I grew up in a small southern town where the library was very important to me,” Kushner says.

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Playwright Tony Kushner is the 2022 recipient of the Chicago Public Library Foundation’s 2022 Carl Sandburg Literary Award.

Playwright Tony Kushner is the 2022 recipient of the Chicago Public Library Foundation’s 2022 Carl Sandburg Literary Award.

Bryan Derballa

When the much-lauded playwright/screenwriter Tony Kushner collects the Chicago Public Library Foundation’s 2022 Carl Sandburg Literary Award at a gala Wednesday, he’ll join some illustrious company.

Since its inception in 2000, other recipients have included Stephen Sondheim, Toni Morrison, Roger Ebert, Salman Rushdie and Amy Tan, giants who inarguably meet the award’s lofty criteria of recognizing those “whose significant body of work has enhanced the public’s awareness of the written word.”

Still, Kushner — whose voluminous writing credits include the Pulitzer Prize-winning epic “Angels in America” and the screenplay for Stephen Spielberg’s upcoming autobiographical movie “The Fabelmans” — turns down a lot of invitations these days. Not this time.

“Honestly, I find myself saying ‘no’ to a lot of things because I’m so busy,” Kushner said. “But, with this, I was moved that it was given by a public library. I grew up in a small southern town where the library was very important to me. A number of big revelations in my life have taken place in libraries.

“The other thing is, of course, is that I love Chicago. ‘Angels’ started its national tour with a sitdown in Chicago. Chicago staged ‘A Bright Room Called Day’ when very few places would do it. I realized long ago, like I did about the Bay Area and New York, ‘Oh, this is a place that has an audience for me, that supports my work.’ ”

That audience made itself known during the 1994 Chicago debut of “Angels in America” at the Royal George Theatre, the first stop on its first national tour. The eight-hour run time (the two parts, “Millennium Approaches” and “Perestroika,” combine to form the whole of “Angels in America”) didn’t daunt Chicagoans. “Angels” ran for nearly five months here before moving on.

With a body of work that also includes “Homebody/Kabul” and “Caroline or Change,” Kushner said “Angels” is probably what he’ll be most remembered for. Set in the mid-1980s, the drama focuses on the ravages of the AIDS pandemic, global warming, extreme far-right politicos, lethal homophobia and the history and impact of the Mormon church.

“It’s a period piece in that it’s set in a specific period,” Kushner said. “But I don’t think it’s dated. I feel like we’re always almost on the verge of turning the corner to a better time. But, as it turns out, we’re always still in peril. ...

“We struggled a long, long time with the AIDS pandemic. We’re still struggling. I hope that isn’t indicative of the way we’re going to keep struggling with COVID.”

“The Fabelmans” is the latest project in a 20-year collaboration that began when Spielberg tapped Kushner to write the screenplay for the 2005 film “Munich.” Disney’s 2012 drama “Lincoln” followed, earning Kushner an Oscar nomination for best adapted screenplay. The Oscar-winning 2021 reboot of “West Side Story” came next.

Slated for a November release, “The Fabelmans” tells the story of a Jewish family in Arizona, centered on a young son who is a passionate amateur filmmaker encouraged by his deeply artistic mother.

“I made up the name ‘The Fabelmans’ because we weren’t going to call it ‘The Spielbergs,’ ” Kushner said. “Although I’ve always found it fitting that ‘Spielberg’ literally means ‘story mountain’ — ‘spiel’ is ‘story’ in Yiddish and German, ‘berg’ is ‘mountain’ in German.”

Kushner did call Spielberg by name in a climactic scene in “Angels.” The moment comes as the titular angel smashes through the ceiling of lead character Prior Walter, a young man in the throes of AIDS. “Very Steven Spielberg,” Prior says as a tornado of light, feathers and special effects crash down.

“I stuck Steven in there because I wanted the angel’s arrival to be a real spectacle, and who was better at spectacle than Steven?” Kushner said. “I didn’t think he’d be calling me to work on ‘Munich’ in a few years. I certainly didn’t think I’d wind up working with him for 20 years.”

When they worked together on “Munich” and “Lincoln,” the two swapped stories about their childhoods, Kushner said. Spielberg’s included a time in Arizona, where — per the subsequent “Fabelman’s” screenplay — he discovered a love of filming family vacations and model train wrecks while coming to terms with belonging to the only Jewish family for miles.

“I said back then you have to make a movie about these stories,” Kushner said. “During rehearsal period for ‘West Side Story,’ we were sitting around one day. He said, ‘Why don’t you come to the apartment, and let’s resume our conversation about that Arizona movie.’

“It just kind of poured out,” Kushner said. “It was a surprise and a great joy.”

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