Angels in America, Part One: Millennium Approaches
Any time people start trying to put together a list of "greatest living American playwrights" the name Tony Kushner usually pops up. Ever since the debut of his monster megahit Angels in America, Kushner has been one of the most widely respected playwrights on the planet.
Angels explores the AIDS epidemic in the gay community in the 1980s. It was called by theater critic Frank Rich of the New York Times "a radial rethinking of American political drama." This revolutionary piece of theater basically won every award a play can possibly win: a Pulitzer, a Tony, a Drama Desk, a New York Critics Circle – the list keeps going and going.
So who is this Tony Kushner? Where did this theatrical superhero come from? Kushner was born in Manhattan in July 1956, but he grew up in Lake Charles, Louisiana. He's been quoted as saying:
I have fairly clear memories of being gay since I was six. I knew that I felt slightly different than most of the boys I was growing up with. By the time I was eleven there was no doubt. But I was completely in the closet. (source)
By the time college rolled around, the future playwright was back in Manhattan again, earning his bachelor's degree at Columbia University. He was still deeply in the closet, however. Kushner didn't come to terms with his sexuality until his mid-twenties. Undoubtedly, this struggle is part of what fed the creation of Angels in America.
Interestingly, however, it wasn't even Kushner who first decided he needed to write a play about AIDS in the gay community. Oskar Eustis, of San Francisco's Eureka Theater Company (who is now artistic director of the New York Public Theater), had been impressed by Kushner's early play, A Bright Room Called Day, and commissioned him to write what would become Angels in America. (Wow, Oskar, that was a pretty good idea.)
Part One of Angels in America was given a workshop production in 1990, under Eustis' direction, at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles. It went on to premiere at the Eureka in 1991. The play went off like a grenade, blazing from San Francisco to London then to Broadway in 1993, igniting admiration and controversy wherever it went.
Despite the play's awards and critical acclaim, several of its productions faced stiff resistance. Famously, a production by the Charlotte Repertory Theater in Charlotte, North Carolina, was protested by fundamentalist preacher, Joseph Chambers. The controversy got pretty fierce, to say the least. Public officials threatened to jail the actors, and Charlotte Rep's theater was almost shut down. It took an order from a state judge for the play to go on.
Conservative backlash did nothing to stop Angels, however. In 2003, Kushner adapted the play into a TV miniseries for HBO, with an all-star cast that included Meryl Streep and Al Pacino, among others. As if the play needed another award, this version got an Emmy. The play returned to New York in 2010 for an Off-Broadway production at Signature Theater Company.
Why Should I Care?
Some have accused Angels in America of not being relevant anymore. Some say that by so specifically addressing the issues of a) AIDS, b) gay rights, and c) the politics of the Reagan era, the play pigeonholes and dates itself.
Hmm, really? Let's see...
- While AIDS is no longer an immediate death sentence in the West, the epidemic is virtually crippling some countries in Africa. The infrastructures of entire nations are falling apart as a result of the disease.
- The issue of gay marriage is constantly debated on the national political scene, and the recent spate of suicides by gay teenagers has once more brought intolerance against the gay community to national attention.
- Reagan basically re-shaped the whole Republican Party in his image. Some say that he even re-shaped the Democratic Party in his image, bringing the entire country over to a more conservative mindset. Many say we've never left the Reagan era. (Head over to our US history guide on The Reagan-Era for more on that.)
It looks like anybody who says that Angels isn't still relevant just doesn't know their ABCs. Just sayin'.