Isaac Butler and Dan Kois give us this week's Long Read from Slate as they document the oral history of Tony Kushner's seminal Angels in America on the play's 25th anniversary.
Twenty-five years ago this summer, Tony Kushner’s Angels in America premiered in the tiny Eureka Theatre in San Francisco’s Mission District. Within two years it had won the Pulitzer Prize and begun a New York run that would dominate the Tony Awards two years in a row, revitalize the nonmusical play on Broadway, and change the way gay lives were represented in pop culture. Both parts of Angels, Millennium Approaches and Perestroika, put gay men at the center of American politics, history, and mythology at a time when they were marginalized by the culture at large and dying in waves. It launched the careers of remarkable actors and directors, not to mention the fiercely ambitious firebrand from Louisiana who wrote it—and rewrote it, and rewrote it, and rewrote it again. Its 2003 HBO adaptation was itself a masterpiece that won more Emmys than Roots. But the play also financially wiped out the theater that premiered it; it endured casting and production tumult at every stage of development, from Los Angeles to London to Broadway; its ambitious, sprawling two-part structure tested the endurance of players, technicians, and audiences. Slate talked to more than 50 actors, directors, playwrights, and critics to tell the story ofAngels’ turbulent ascension into the pantheon of great American storytelling—and to discuss the legacy of a play that feels, in an era in which gay Americans have the right to marry but still in many ways live under siege, as crucial as ever.
Tony Kushner (playwright of Angels in America): Around November of 1985, the first person that I knew personally died of AIDS. A dancer that I had a huge crush on, a very sweet man and very beautiful. I got an NEA directing fellowship at the repertory theater in St. Louis, and right before I left New York, I heard through the grapevine that he had gotten sick. And then, in November, he died.
And I had this dream: Bill dying—I don’t know if he was actually dying, but he was in his pajamas and sick on his bed—and the ceiling collapsed and this angel comes into the room. And then I wrote a poem. I’m not a poet, but I wrote this thing. It was many pages long. After I finished it, I put it away. No one will ever see it.
Its title was “Angels in America.”
And I remember in college the massive, massive controversy over when the play came to Charlotte in 1996. Billy Graham went nuts, and eventually Mecklenburg County cut funding to the theater company that put the play on in 1997. The Charlotte Repertoire Theater folded nine years later.
That battle is still going on in North Carolina today, only now over trans people using bathrooms. North Carolina hasn't changed much. I have, it's why I left and frankly I'm not coming back.
Sad when Kentucky looks less bigoted than the state you grew up in.