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La Jolla Playhouse Explores Economic Excesses In ‘Junk’

Photo caption: A scene from the play "JUNK: The Golden Age of Debt" at the La Jolla Playhouse.

Photo by Jim Carmody

A scene from the play "JUNK: The Golden Age of Debt" at the La Jolla Playhouse.

La Jolla Playhouse Explores Economic Excesses In 'Junk'

GUEST:

Ayad Akhtar, playwright, "Junk: The Golden Age of Debt"

Transcript

Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Ayad Akhtar wants to explain how debt became so engrained in the American psyche.

On its surface, his newest play, "Junk: The Golden Age of Debt" at the La Jolla Playhouse, is about a team of lawyers in the mid-1980s using junk bonds, along with some illegal tricks, to wage a hostile takeover of a major manufacturing company. Junk bonds are high-risk, high-reward financial products that can help upstart companies raise money. But Akhtar said the play isn't meant as a period piece.

"The play is called 'Junk,' but it's not about junk bonds," Akhtar said. "They're not important. What's important is the notion of debt."

The Federal Reserve raised interest rates to 21.5 percent in 1981, the highest ever, in order to fight inflation. But it drove Wall Street to chase higher and higher investment returns, Akhtar said, because the sale of debt became a viable business model. Even as interest rates fell, the U.S. remained enamored with debt, he said.

"The making of money is a very compelling human action," Akhtar said. "The experience of making money on Wall Street has often been compared to a drug rush. There's an enthusiasm and a compulsion to it. I want the audience to experience the process of capital creation as a rhythm. That's why there's 64 scenes. You get lost in the back and forth."

Akhtar joins KPBS Midday Edition on Wednesday with more on how the takeover tactics of the 1980s still resonate today.

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