Unless you're an actor, it's probable you know nothing about Tony Kushner's landmark 1993 play Angels in America (though you may have caught the HBO miniseries version). Angels sounds like the kind of show you'd find at a Baptist theme park. It is not. Theatre folk revere this multiple Tony winner, but it's both arduous to stage and off-putting to elderly, conservative audiences, so most companies shy away from producing it. Oh! I should also mention it's divided into two parts, Millennium Approaches and Perestroika, each of which is three hours long. That's a long sit, especially when characters are rambling on about government and "power to the people." So why do we in the acting and directing games adore it so much?
A key element of the play is gay Americans' struggle for acceptance in the 1980s, as a viral plague ravaged their community while amplifying the phobias of heterosexuals. I've told the story before of how a visit to a drag club, and a list of names read there of the recently deceased, won me over once and for all to the side of righteousness--meaning I am a straight ally. That night in, I think, 1991 was a game-changer for me. It put the lie to everything I'd been told about homosexuality by my Christian elders while injecting harsh reality and urgency into the AIDS crisis. Five years later, I found myself playing Louis in an SIU-C production of Angels in America, Part 1. I auditioned in hopes of earning the part of Roy Cohn, a thinly fictionalized incarnation of the very real attorney at the heart of the Red Scare and marginalization of gay citizens. Cohn died of what he called "liver cancer," in actuality HIV, in 1986. Instead I got Louis, who has many more lines and is openly gay and is also kind of a bastard himself, in that he begins an affair even as his longtime boyfriend disintegrates from HIV infection.
We heterosexual folks who love theatre spend our lives working side by side with gay men and lesbians. We love them as family. They're part of us. So when we hear about legislators, to this very day, working overtime to curry favor with Fox News viewers by yanking hard-won rights away from those we love, it destroys us on a gut level. We embrace Angels in America because it articulates, in so many ways, a cause we view as embedded in our cells. Its characters demand equality, from God and other humans, as opponents close ranks around them. This play is the Marseillaise to our war: "C'est nous qu'on ose méditer de rendre à l'antique esclavage! Aux armes, citoyens!"
But if I'm being honest, even as the justice of our cause swelled my chest, I was uncomfortable rehearsing as Louis. I'd never kissed a man before, and I'd certainly never mimed sexual activity with my pants down before hundreds of people. The play is still shocking to conservative audiences, but man; in 1996, in Bible-belt southern Illinois, patrons' outrage--yes, I know the word outrage is vastly overused, but I stand by it here--nearly set the room on fire. I had to confront and get over my own hangups and prejudices, then face the collective displeasure of six hundred people a night. There were letters to the editor. People were assigned to walk actors to their cars. It was crazy. And I know it changed at least one life...mine.
Fast-forward 22 years to tomorrow at 7:55 p.m., when I'll walk on stage, finally, as Roy Cohn in an Olympia Little Theatre production of Angels in America directed by Nic Olson. We're presenting Millennium Approaches this first week, then Perestroika the second. It's a staged reading, meaning we actors will have books in our hands, but I think even OLT was surprised by the level to which this staged reading has been produced. It's fully blocked, costumed, lit, and sound-designed. There's a rudimentary set, complete with levels and special effects. To facilitate fight, love, and sex scenes, we've memorized certain pages. We studied Aramaic, French, Hebrew and medical jargon. No one gets naked, but we would've if asked. At the risk of implied condescension, I can't imagine how OLT could've asked for or gotten a smarter, more dedicated, talented cast. Kudos, for example, to Austin Lang, who's playing Louis; he's made choices I wish I'd been clever enough to make at SIU. I think what audience members get from this show is 85-90% of a fully-staged production, and remember, that's over six hours of theatre. Not too shabby!
If, that is, we get an audience. I haven't made too big a deal of the show up till now, because frankly, some of my readers won't want to see it. If, for example, you oppose gay marriage, this show isn't for you. Gay marriage wasn't a remote possibility when Angels was written, but the absolute rightness of it underlies every word. If the sight of two men kissing gives you the squeams, then, again, this show isn't for you. I suspect the 21st century won't be, either. If you can't abide swearing--I say words in this I wouldn't call my worst enemy--or seeing me play a horrible person--absolutely the worst I've ever played, by the time Perestroika gets through--then please stay home. Save your eight bucks a night. I mean, maybe this'd be a great learning experience for you, but frankly, you seem like the kind of person who avoids those. Not my problem. If you love to be challenged, however, to be wildly entertained by the hugest of emotional arcs at the climax of the Eschaton itself, then I damn sure know what you should put on your calendar.
It's different doing this show now, not just because I'm playing Roy instead of Louis. The world has changed in so many wonderful ways over the last two decades, some of which allowed it to mature in ways that helped it catch up with the play. My friends helped make some of that happen. One of our professors at ECU, Mary Bishop (now Bishop-Baldwin), was a driving force in legalizing gay marriage in Oklahoma. The cool theatre senior who lived next door is now a different sex altogether, which makes her one of three transgendered people on my Facebook friends list. Again: not part of our collective reality in 1996. Each day, the fight for equality is taking place in everyone's neighborhood, on TV and in social media, and the good guys and gals are finally winning. On the theatre side, no more do we see open homophobia in newspaper reviews. Actors are expected to be fully comfortable performing gay characters, including same-sex physical contact. It's part of our lives now. And y'know, once that period of uncertainty and yes, discomfort, passed, it freed people like me to understand that Angels in America has a much bigger theme than even the securing of equal rights for all our fellow Americans. It's about what it means to be a country itself. What is the point of all this? What are we trying to accomplish? How do we move ahead, and toward what, when we haven't decided what our guiding principles are? No, God isn't dead, but He also isn't president. He doesn't tell us which legislation to pass. The books He allegedly wrote seem decreasingly relevant to our daily lives, not because we're all fallen sinners, but because they predate modern science or humanistic ethics (or, in the case of the Torah at least, Euclidean geometry). In other words, while God continues His two-thousand-year history as a deadbeat dad, how and, as significant, why do we conduct our civilization? Those are vast questions. In some ways, six hours of drama isn't enough to scratch the surface, but Kushner's attempt at doing so is comparable to Shakespeare's meditations on the human condition in Hamlet. It doesn't get any bigger or better.
So that's the outline. I'll have more to say about our experiences with Angels, and in more of an anecdotal fashion, next week. In the meantime, wish us broken legs. Let us know what you think of our show. It'll be interesting, for both us and you.