In 1993, the same year that Tom Hanks’ Philadelphia broke down barriers surrounding AIDS and an HBO film based on Randy Schilts’ And The Band Played On deconstructed the beginnings of the epidemic, Tony Kushner’s seminal heightened-reality play began making waves.
Angels In America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes is, as the name suggests, a work that covers a vast amount of territory. Set mainly in ’80s New York, Angels tackled AIDS, homosexuality, Mormonism, humor, supernaturalism, death, and the issues both inside and outside the closet.
Despite heaps of nontraditional composition and staging, Angels won a Pulitzer Prize. It has been adapted into an HBO miniseries and an opera, both with success that has kept it in the public eye for almost two decades. Sadly, Angels remains extremely relevant.
I didn’t come to Angels through a production, but through combing the shelves at an out-of-town bookstore. The year I turned 18, I read the play—wrapped in a generic book cover for fear that Kushner’s tale wouldn’t go over too well in my conservative Mormon hometown.
I already had a lot to hide: I thought I had an acute case of “gay man in woman’s body” (as this was before I knew the term “pangendered” as a better descriptor of my personal case), and my liberal worldviews were not at all in alignment with a town where a prerequisite of joining the downtown business association was keeping one’s doors closed on Sundays. I didn’t feel like arguing my choice of literature on top of all of that.
A few months later, all of that changed. Word spread that our college was putting on a production of Angels. A liberal drama professor had somehow managed to get it green-lit, and any thought of passing up involvement in such a personally important work to avoid conflict went out the window.
I didn’t make the cut at auditions—a significant blow to my ego, as there were only a handful more would-be actors than parts, considering how few people were keen on involving themselves in a play that included on-stage gay sex simulations—so I volunteered for backstage work and got all that I could handle. I was the assistant stage manager, the soundtrack assistant, the general go-to guy, and the liaison to the consultant I pulled in: my best friend a thousand miles away. It may be hard for urban dwellers to believe, but in this college town, no one knew anyone who openly suffered from AIDS or, indeed, even had an understanding of what urban gay life was like.
As the production ramped up, so did the drama. One gay actor announced that he didn’t “do” stage kissing, not even for the jittery recently-married straight boy he was to make out with onstage, and invented wardrobe-closet “practice sessions” to, er, work out the kinks. Another particularly flamboyant actor, who drove a distinctive car, was continually stopped by police for traffic infractions such as driving one mile above the speed limit. A soccer mom at one of my brother’s games asked me what I was doing at college, and she was one of the few who knew what Angels was when I told her. “Don’t you love truth?” she asked me. “Don’t you love Light?” (I still don’t know exactly what she meant by that, but the religious overtones were enough as far as I was concerned.)
We all knew that although there were plenty of the usual interpersonal tensions and technical issues that plague any production, we were also flirting with social danger, whether it came in the form of actors facing their sexualities and prejudices or in the form of community backlash. My anxiety at the play’s potential reception increased, but I simply threw myself deeper into the production to deal with it, often racking up eight or 10 hours a day in the drama department.
Then there was the danger of damaged egos. While attending an early run-through of a scene involving gay sex in Central Park, I struggled not to laugh as the actors gave it a go lying down. I found myself in the predicament of knowing that the scene as acted was inaccurate (laughably so to anyone in the know), but how would I, as a 17-year-old female, correct two gay actors on such a thing? Ultimately, I secured our consultant’s permission to tell the director that I had told him about the run-through and the note on inaccuracy had come from him instead of me. The director happily changed the blocking, without apparent insult to the actors, and I learned from my own dissatisfaction at playing a kind of pretend Telephone that I would soon need to face my fear of fessing up to my knowledge about all things gay male.
As opening night grew closer, so did my apprehension. As proud as I was of our production, I was equally concerned about the community response. Everything I had seen happen in Lifetime movies and after-school specials ran through my head. I envisioned playing to an empty theater, or struggling to enter the backstage area past protesters. I didn’t think it was outside the realm of possibility for someone to stand up in outrage halfway through the show and throw a fit, even though we plastered every entry door with strongly worded warnings about the religious themes, nudity, and graphic sexuality.
At the same time, the mischievous side of me enjoyed the fact that my moments to breathe backstage tended to happen during the more aggressively sexual moments, and I had found the holes in the scenery allowing me to peek through and get a look at the audience. We staged the production in a very small theater, with many of the sexual scenes occurring barely three feet from the front row, on the same level as the chairs. If the broad-stroked protests I envisioned didn’t come to pass, I expected to at least find the reaction of the audience interesting in those moments.
There were no protests. In fact, we kept the seats mostly filled for every performance—quite a feat, considering that our production was in two parts that ran three-and-a-half hours each. That we could fill seats for seven hours of controversy for almost two dozen performances in a town of 12,000 was astonishing to me—even more so when I was told that the bank of seats I noticed most frequently empty were reserved for season ticketholders.
While it came as no surprise that patrons of the arts in our conservative town would take a pass on Angels, the surprise came right back at the realization that this meant people weren’t attending out of a sense of value for a season ticket, but had come specifically for this show.
We did have a few people walk out, but no one left in a dramatic huff. A few quietly exited mid-scene, but most waited for intermission. When I peeked through the scenery to watch the front-row faces during the sex scenes, I didn’t see anger or disgust. I saw deer-in-headlights expressions and stoic countenances. And every night, at the end of the play, we were applauded, and sometimes even given a standing ovation.
While intolerance remained a real and pressing problem in the community, the idea that art could engage the minds of those uninterested in discussing controversies in reality was immensely exciting. Whether anyone who attended changed their minds about homophobia or AIDS or the Mormon church is unknowable, but it was obvious that some people became emotionally invested in characters who were gay, or suffered from AIDS, or struggled through crises in faith. In such a small and conservative town, this was a step forward no political campaign or awareness parade could have achieved: through art, thousands of people engaged, however fictitiously, with the mundane humanity beneath the veil of stereotype.
Art changes lives and minds, even the art of a little play in a small town performed to a conservative audience. And it wasn’t just the audience that changed; my realization of the scope of art’s power strengthened my resolve to dedicate my life to it. It isn't just the power of any one piece of art that is immense. It’s art’s capacity to inspire others, like ripples in a pond. Social and political change begins in each individual, and sometimes, it’s a work of fiction that sets the gears in motion. It’s incredible to truly recognize the power of art: with the force of imagination, we can navigate the world into the societal change we seek.