Hi-Ho, the Glamorous Life: Angels in an American Election Year

Marissa Skudlarek, on politics, history, and Angels In America.

One way you can tell a play is great is by how frequently other things remind you of it. And over the past year, I’ve been reminded of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America numerous times. When the Supreme Court ruled that gay marriage is legal across the land, I thought of Prior Walter’s affirmation in the last scene of Angels: “The world only spins forward. We will be citizens. The time has come.” More recently, when I read that Roy Cohn was one of Donald Trump’s political mentors, I knew just why that’s so scary: Cohn was an unrepentant McCarthyite, a power-hungry liar, and, in Angels, one of the great stage villains of modern times. And last Friday, when Hillary Clinton made her gaffe about how the Reagans had “started a national conversation on AIDS,” I thought of Angels’ depiction of AIDS in the ‘80s, and how this play has educated me about an era that I am too young to remember.

This year also marks the silver anniversary of Angels: the world premiere of Millennium Approaches and the first public staged reading of Perestroika took place at San Francisco’s own Eureka Theater in May 1991. So how has the play aged, and what it’s like to perform it in our current political climate? As it happens, Town Hall Theatre in Lafayette is just finishing up an ambitious production of Angels – they produced Millennium Approaches around this time last year, then brought the whole cast back for Perestroika this year. My friend Alan Coyne is playing Joe Pitt in that production, and he, two of his castmates, and director Joel Roster agreed to talk with me by email. They all provided incredibly beautiful and thoughtful responses that I almost feel sad to have had to edit for length – which just goes to testify to the complexity and enduring power of Kushner’s play.

Marissa: What’s it like performing this big, complicated, American play during a contentious election year? Have the past year’s events shaped the way that you approach Perestroika?

Kerri Shawn (Hannah Pitt): The past year’s events have deepened this experience for me and everything about this journey has become even more meaningful and important. I do not usually talk about my political views openly. I listen a lot and pay attention to everything but I do not get into heated discussions or debates about the news. However, I have loved being with this particular group of artists during this time. We have had some wonderful discussions in the dressing room about all of the political issues the play brings up. I have also felt the audience’s reaction to our production has deepened because of current events, especially everything going on with the election.

Alan Coyne (Joe Pitt): The lead-up to the same-sex marriage ruling was a huge part of our lives during Millennium Approaches. I think we were pretty confident it was about to happen, so it made Prior’s assertions of his rights and the general theme of progress seem all the more prophetic. But of course, we still weren’t quite there, and there was some anxiety that it might not get through. Millennium Approaches demonstrates with painful clarity what happens when you deny same-sex couples their human rights: Louis’ secretive behavior with Prior at his grandmother’s funeral; the lack of official sanction for their relationship; Joe and Harper’s terribly damaging relationship, in part due to marriage between a man and a woman being the only available option. So it felt like we were fighting, in a small way, on the right side in that struggle.

Joel Roster (director): The music that permeates our soundtrack for both parts of Angels is from the late 1960s–a contentious, blood-sweat-and-tears time in our nation’s history, smack dab in the heart of civil rights and war. The reason for this (as opposed to using music from the 1980s) is that history does repeat itself for those who fail to acknowledge or learn from it. When a prominent Presidential candidate is fanning racial hatred and prejudice, there’s never been a more important time to learn from our own history. I wouldn’t say that today’s events have shaped our approach to the piece, but we’d be foolish not to acknowledge the startling similarities.

Alan: With Perestroika, Donald Trump has come up a lot in our dressing-room conversations. I first found out his ties to Roy Cohn right before we started rehearsal for Perestroika, from the epic Funny Or Die version of Art of the Deal, starring Johnny Depp. I highly recommend everyone watch it, because it is (horrifyingly) one of the few accurate and detailed accounts of Trump’s rise to power. We’ve made a point of bringing up Trump’s relationship to Cohn at every talkback, because once you know about it, it is terrifyingly obvious.

LaMont Ridgell (Belize): Our marvelous dramaturge Meg Honey helped us put the show and our characters in perspective by revealing to us what was actually happening during the time of the play, politically and historically. I believe the current election proceedings, make the play even more relevant — most, if not all of the themes are still true today. I was very disappointed in Hillary’s comments regarding Nancy Reagan – and while she apologized twice, she said very little about the Reagans and their indirect and sometimes direct responsibility for so many men and women dying of AIDS. They simply did nothing.

Alan: There was definitely a different energy on the night after Hillary Clinton’s comments at Nancy Reagan’s funeral, more anger in our performance. Perhaps it made us feel that what we were doing was more important, that people were starting to forget what it was like in the ‘80s, the silence that cost so many people their lives.

Marissa: Has the audience reaction been different this year, compared to last year?

LaMont: This year’s audience has been with us for the long haul, so after the time they invested in getting to know the characters and their stories, they get a huge payoff with Part 2. And the stories are very real… not wrapped up neatly with a nice, shiny bow. Also, in Part 2, you’re witness to more characters. Belize and Hannah aren’t as prominent in Part 1, but in Part 2, their characters are fleshed out more.

Joel: There’s a lot more laughter. Kushner stated that he framed Millennium Approaches as a tragedy and Perestroika more as a comedy. For a play where AIDS is such a prominent focus, only one character dies: the villain of the piece. I always think of it as one play, as does the cast, but the reaction has mostly been “I liked this even more than Part One.” Part One is mostly tragic exposition and set-up for the explosion that is Part Two, and I think that Part Two is far more hopeful; perhaps that’s why it’s been received even better than Part One has been. Millennium Approaches was the best-reviewed play in Town Hall’s history, but that was shattered this year by the overwhelming critical response to Perestroika.

Alan: I think we’ve had bigger crowds this year. This could be due to a number of factors; it seemed like a couple of people who came to Millennium Approaches last year didn’t know what to expect (I think they thought it was a nice play about angels like It’s a Wonderful Life, which Jerry Motta & I were in at Town Hall the previous December). Also, the first part gets done a lot more often (though that’s not doing the play justice at all!), so perhaps folks have come to see Perestroika because they haven’t had a chance to see it before. Millennium Approaches won a few Shellie Awards, including Best Production, so that could have had an effect. And perhaps the same-sex marriage ruling made more straight people realize that “gay theater” is actually the same thing as, you know, theater.

Kerri: So many audience members came last year and are now returning. Often they tell us that they enjoyed Perestroika in a deeper way and that they’ve loved seeing how the story resolves. Many companies only do Millennium but is clear after this experience that the two need to be done together. Both parts are brilliantly written! It is a very powerful story – and it still needs to be told!

Marissa: Are there any lines in the play that particularly stick out for you as having relevance to our current historical moment?

Alan: Everything Roy Cohn says sounds like Donald Trump, only smarter. His racist provocations, his absurd boastful posturing, his dismissal of “losers,” his gloating at being the “dragon sitting atop the golden horde.” In Perestroika he says “Half the time I just make it up, and it still turns out to be true” and “You feel bad that you beat somebody…everybody could use a good beating.” So it’s no surprise that Cohn was Trump’s mentor; the big surprise is that Kushner literally forgives Cohn. Of course, it’s easier to forgive the dead. But the best lines are the universal ones, because ultimately, Angels in America is a universal story. People frequently write it off as a “play about AIDS,” which is rather like calling Hamlet a “play about 12th-century Danish politics.” It’s hugely important that the ‘80s AIDS crisis is the setting, but this play is about so much more: love, loss, abandonment, hope, theology, progress, forgiveness… you know, Life. At the end of the play, when Prior addresses the audience — “You are fabulous creatures, each and every one. And I bless you: More Life” — it hits. Every single time. But you have to live through it all for the magic to work.

Joel: In Prior’s final monologue, he also says “We will not die secret deaths anymore. We will be citizens. The time has come. The world only spins forward.” That sticks with me a lot, as does Belize’s diatribe about the state of America: “I hate America, Louis. I hate this country. It’s just big ideas, and stories, and people dying and people like you. The white cracker who wrote the national anthem knew what he was doing. He set the word ‘free’ to a note so high nobody can reach it. That was deliberate. Nothing sounds less like freedom to me.” The fact that in Part One Louis says that “Justice is God” and then we learn in Part Two that God has abandoned us, abandoned heaven and the angels… it says a great deal about where we are in America.

LaMont: Prior’s closing monologue and my (Belize’s) “I hate America” monologue, definitely. When I’m asking Louis to bless Roy: “It’s not easy… it doesn’t count if it’s easy. It’s the hardest thing. Forgiveness.” And my line regarding the angel’s visit: “That’s malevolent. Some of us didn’t exactly CHOOSE to migrate! You know what I’m sayin’?” Overall, it’s been kinda weird playing Belize because I’ve been him. More times than not feeling “trapped in a world of white people!” — so to speak.

Kerri: Prior’s speeches in both the Angels Council scene and at Bethesda will stay with me long after the play closes. In the council scene he says: “But still, bless me anyway. I want more life. I can’t help myself. I do… We live past hope. If I can find hope anywhere, that’s it, that’s the best I can do. It’s so much not enough, so inadequate but… Bless me anyway. I want more life.” I have been acting for over 40 years and have had the privilege of working on the stories of many great playwrights including O’Neill, Williams, Miller, and Shakespeare. This is my first experience with Tony Kushner and I will forever be grateful for this profound experience of being a part of both Millennium and Perestroika. I am a better person for having worked on this project with this group of wonderfully talented artists. I feel so fortunate for the whole of it!

Marissa: This question is specifically for Alan: I know you were born in Ireland and came to this country with your family as a child, and now, you’re playing what seems to be the most stereotypically “All-American” character in a great American play. Do you have any thoughts about what it’s like to act in a quintessentially American play while being an immigrant to this country? Or is being an immigrant the most quintessentially American experience of all — and am I coming off as some kind of awful nativist Trump supporter for even asking you this question?

Alan: Well, as I mentioned, this is not so much an American play as a universal one. It begins with an immigrant, the rabbi Isidor Chemelwitz, saying “You do not live in America… no such place exists.” Migration is a significant theme throughout the work; Joe says “I migrated across the breadth of the continent of North America, I ran all this way to get away.” And in Millennium Approaches, I got to play an ancestor of Prior’s from Yorkshire, which is where my father was born, and therefore a dialect I am very comfortable with (more so than Irish, actually). So my immigrant status has been an asset, if anything.

Joe may seem “all-American,” but as a Utah Mormon who has become a lawyer in New York City, he is an alien, an outsider. Roy points it out in their very first scene in Millennium; Louis repeatedly remarks on how strange it is; Prior and Belize gawp at him like he’s an exotic animal. More than that, as a gay Mormon, he’s a secret alien; in Millennium Approaches, he confesses to Roy, “I never stood out, on the outside, but inside, it was hard for me. To pass.” Similarly, my immigrant status is only visible because I insist on it. After living here for nearly 30 years, I don’t have an accent. And because I’m white, Americans only know I’m foreign because I keep telling them so. Unlike Joe, I don’t need to hide it; it’s infinitely easier to be Irish in the Bay Area today than it is to be a gay Mormon in the ‘80s. But perhaps my secret struggle is confronting how American I have actually become.

Marissa: I hope you’re still Irish enough that I can wish you a Happy St. Patrick’s Day today! Thank you so much, Alan, Joel, Kerri and LaMont for sharing your thoughts about the “great work” of performing Angels. Break legs this weekend!

The TBA-recommended production of Angels in America: Perestroika is in its final week of performances at Town Hall Theatre in Lafayette. Visit http://www.townhalltheatre.com/main-stage-performances/angels-in-america-perestroika for more information.

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One comment on “Hi-Ho, the Glamorous Life: Angels in an American Election Year

  1. It’s a great production at Town Hall Theatre. If you’re interested in going, they still have performances this weekend and the theater is an easy 10 minute walk from Lafayette BART. It’s fascinating to see that orange guy mentioned in Marissa’s piece because his similarity in temperament to Roy Cohn is startling. When I tried in 2013 to get the chance to direct the show (I just missed out by the smallest margin at a local company), it annoyed me greatly that some people said the play was dated. It wasn’t dated at all then, and, now, in our current political environment of bullying and fear, the play is actually supercharged. Recommended!

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