Dallas — Tony Kushner’s Pulitzer Prize- and Tony Award-winning play, Angels in America, Part One: Millennium Approaches, about the politics and pain of the AIDS crisis of the 1980’s—and so much more—turns 25 this year. From the time Angels in America was written, to first produced in San Francisco in 1991 and taken to Broadway in 1993, the world had already changed drastically. The election of Bill Clinton, the birth of the World Wide Web and major advances in the treatment of HIV/AIDS had enormous impacts on our culture in the early 1990’s.
The world has not stopped and has in fact only gotten faster. So, why is it important to see Angels in America now? “There’s this thing happening on November 8,” reminds Marianne Galloway, part of the cast in Uptown Players’ revival opening Friday at the Kalita Humphreys Theater, where local audiences first saw Angels, presented by Dallas Theater Center, in the mid-1990s. Now in early voting, the 2016 Presidential Election will be decided after the first weekend of Uptown’s production, which runs through Nov. 20.
“Should this election go one way, rather than another, I think the chance that the gay population may lose some of the rights that they have gained over the past 25 years is an enormous threat,” says director Cheryl Denson. And, certainly, this election season has created a tornado of passions and fears surrounding division and stereotypes and gender and healthcare and an “other” to fight against—all issues at the heart of and in many ways said best in Angels in America. It’s fitting that both parts of Angels (the second is Perestroika) have the subtitle “A Gay Fantasia on National Themes.”
The crusade against the “other” is embodied by the dramatic creation of real-life attorney Roy Cohn, who is, for all practical purposes, the villain in Angels in America. As a federal prosecutor, Cohn was instrumental in the Rosenberg trial and in U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy’s fight against communism in the 1950’s. He was also a mentor to Donald Trump in the 1970’s and 80’s. Cohn, who had long hidden his homosexuality, died of AIDS in 1986.
Kushner brings the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg to Cohn, to confront him about his life, his hypocrisy and her execution. About Cohn, Kushner said in an interview with Charlie Rose while Angels in America was running on Broadway, “At the time that he died of AIDS, I was moved in a way that I never expected to be by Roy Cohn…I was kind of upset at the way he was discussed in the press at the time because I thought there was a great deal of homophobia and homophobic gloating over the fact that he had died of AIDS. In a certain sense, his dying of this disease made him a part of the gay and lesbian community even if we don’t really want him to be a part of our community.”
History, identity and transformation are the three central themes Denson wants to bring out in this staging of Angels in America. “Who you are, where you are going and what you come from,” she says. This is true on an individual character level and in a larger context.
Cast member Pam Dougherty, who plays both Ethel Rosenberg and Rabbi Isidor Chemelwitz, points to the Rabbi’s opening speech, memorializing a woman who he says “carried the old world on her back across the ocean, in a boat…so that you would not grow up here, in the melting pot where nothing melted.”
“The Martin Heller speech about politics and Reagan and what they wanted to do has come back to me so many times with the eerie prescience of a prophecy,” says cast member Emily Scott Banks, who is playing the Angel for a second time. Banks appeared in Risk Theater Initiative’s 2006 production of the first part of Angels in America at the Bath House Cultural Center, which was directed by Galloway, the co-founder of Risk.
The monologue Banks refers to (Act 2, Scene 6) reads in part, “Affirmative Action? Take it to court. Boom! Land mine. And we’ll get our way in just about everything: abortion, defense, Central America, family values and a live investment climate.”
“The thing that has stuck with me over the years,” says Banks, “is how much of that has come to pass in our country. And how that plan skewed us in a certain direction.”
“By the way we judge ‘great work’ Angels in America falls in this category,” says Denson. “And, I think that when you are dealing with great work, you get down about six layers and then you think, ‘How did I miss the other four?’.”
In our modern cultural connection, angels have come to represent almost fairy-like protective creatures that bring joy. In Kushner’s play, they have been taken back to their roots as signalers of major change. Here, the Angel warns of change and wants to “go back and restore what has been destroyed. But the winds of time are inevitably blowing her forward,” he said in a 1993 interview with journalist Patrick Pacheco. Ultimately, it is the constant shifting that brings hope.
“And just by producing this,” Denson says, “we bring 25 years of history to it.”
Aside from the Dallas Theater Center productions of Millennium Approaches and Perestroika, and Risk’s part one in 2006, the plays were also done by Stage West in Fort Worth in 1998 and 1999. In 2003, an acclaimed HBO mini-series swept the Emmys and other awards. There’s also an opera version by Peter Eötvös, which the Fort Worth Opera staged in 2008.
In addition to Banks, Dougherty and Galloway, the Uptown cast also features Kyle Igneczi, Walter Lee, David Lugo, David Meglino and Garret Storms. Expect to see the second part of Angels in 2017.