Angels in America, Part Two: Perestroika
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?
You've already read the first part of Angels in America, so we're guessing you don't really need us to convince you why you should care about Part Two. After all, the Millennium Approaches ended on a major cliffhanger: Louis and Joe are about to start a relationship, and an angel has just broken through Prior's roof. How could you not be curious about how this bizarre play is going to end?
But as things get crazier and crazier in the second part of Angels in America, maybe you need a bit more help seeing how this play might be relevant in your life. The simply answer is that Part Two is all about change and moving on.
We're sure you've had times in your life when things have just completely fallen apart. Maybe, like some of the characters in the play, you've broken up with your boyfriend or girlfriend. Maybe a loved one has become seriously ill, you've gotten very sick, or you've even lost a friend or family member. Maybe your parents got a divorce and it has shaken up your world.
How do you feel during these hard times? Do you want to turn back the clock? Go back to the way things used to be? Keep the world from changing any more?
As the characters in this play find out, no matter how much you want to return to a simpler yesterday, it just isn't possible. Prior say it himself: "The world only spins forward" (Epilogue.31). But is that a bad thing? Not according to this play. As Harper says, "In this world, there is a kind of painful progress" (5.10.2). Kushner's message is that, though change hurts, it's good for us.