*Today’s post comes to us via Tyler Talbott.*
In a very exciting turn of events, the MU Dept. of Theatre is set to stage Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America” this coming April. But wait! There’s more. Pulitzer, Emmy, and Tony Award winning playwright and author Kushner will be kicking off a planned conference titled, “Angels in Performance: Documenting LGBTQ Lives in Theatre in Performance.” The conference will feature an on-stage interview with Kushner and Mizzou’s “Angels” director David Crespy, along with keynote speeches by esteemed theatre scholars and professors Dr. Kim Marra and Dr. Robert Schanke.
Tony Kushner wrote “Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes” as a play in two-parts set in New York circa 1985. “Angels” quickly snatched the 1993 Tony Award for Best Play and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. The work fully satisfied its promise of a ‘fantasia’ in its bizarre staging and casting (actors playing multiple parts across multiple genders) and dramatic emotional highs and lows. In between the fantastic though persists Kushner’s subversive photograph of 1980s America. Characters include an incredibly anxious gay Jew, his lover, a closeted Mormon, an agoraphobic housewife addicted to pain-killers, real-life McCarthy lawyer/ demon spawn Roy Cohn, angels, ghosts, and of course drag queens. Kushner is able to forge a lot of connections between these disparate elements, generating an image of an ambivalent and fiercely individualistic America that is difficult to forget.
My initial experience with “Angels in America” was with my first boyfriend. We rented the Mike Nichols HBO miniseries adaptation from Hastings and settled in for a six-hour emotional roller coaster. In the immediate wake of our first viewing, we were a little confused. What was the whole thing with ‘stopping movement’? Why was Meryl Streep being such a frigid bitch? Some of the thematic work was a little too abstracted for our little high school craniums to fully grasp. However, I do remember being struck by the stylistic beauty that Kushner used to portray the inscrutable and awful reality of the emerging AIDS crisis in the 1980s. The movie didn’t shy away from the bleakness of living in the margins of New York in this time, of individual tragedies being overlooked during the zeitgeist of Reaganism and religious fundamentalism.
Eventually I took a class at Mizzou under Dr. Elisa Glick framed around gay literature, and I was able to actually read the original play. I remember finding the actual text to be much more funny and much more disturbing than the movie. Parts of the dystopic America that Kushner highlighted in characters like Roy Cohn literally made my skin crawl. The plight of the primary character and prophet Prior Walter had me reeling, as I wrote in one of my essays for the class:
“The tragedy of Prior is that he is endlessly likable, consistently funny, and always undervalued by the conservative culture that surrounds him… This tragedy is externalized and brought up differently in many characters of the play, as Kushner seeks to show how the limited definitions of the American Dream are ill fitting to many who struggle to meet it.”
Matching this dystopic vision of America with the pathos of the AIDS crisis is not exclusive to Kushner. Another artist I came across through my class who has gradually become one of my favorites is David Wojnarowicz. Wojnarowicz pays similar attention to the marginal nature of queer citizens, taking it a step further by giving artistic testimony from the life and body of an AIDS victim. The work of Wojnarowicz largely focuses on his own AIDS diagnosis and outsider perspective as a sexual minority. His artwork and several of his books awaken the viewer to how individuals can be silenced by monolithic power. In his memoir Close to the Knives, the artist writes, “Some of us are born with the cross-hairs of a rifle scope printed on our backs.” Wojnarowicz died of complications from AIDS at 37, sealing his art with a haunting sort of fulfilled promise of the ambivalence of the communities around him.
Kushner’s “Angels” belongs to the same tradition of Wojnarowicz as a piece of social awareness art. While Wojnarowicz sought to shock his audience into understanding, Kushner melded together elements of fantastic dramatic art and poignant social documentary in order to bring the many issues surrounding AIDS into a national focus.
MU Department of Theatre professor and director Dr. David Crespy informed me of his intention to direct Angels, “not only as a beautifully written, witty, magical, and powerful piece of theatre, but also as a documentary, a living history, of the AIDS crisis of the 1980′s and how America turned its back on the Gay community.” Also important to Crespy is not only that we as a nation remember the initial AIDS crisis, but also that we, “make sure that we continue to think about AIDS and the people who (live with it today).” Crespy’s emotional attachment to the project is evident in his personal stories of loved ones lost to the original epidemic, which will no doubt pair excellently with Kushner’s own experience during their on-stage interview. Thinking of “Angels” not only as an aged snapshot, but also as a living piece of reflection on contemporary America is a must for the April performances and accompanying talks.
The interview with Tony Kushner and David Crespy is to take place at 5PM on Wednesday, April 24th with the opening night performance to follow the next day at 7:30. According to the Conference Proposal, all events are free and open to the public.