Last October, Catholic University in Washington, D.C. had an unadulterated hit on its hands. A graduate production of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, Part One: Millennium Approaches, was sold out for all eight of its performances; post-show discussions dealing with AIDS and homosexuality were organized and well-attended; professional theatre folk from around the country, including Kushner himself, were sitting up and taking notice; the production was being mounted at a professional LORT theatre; and the show had garnered more press attention than any other C.U. production in memory.
The problem was, this was a show that the university would have preferred nobody had known about or, for that matter, even seen.
The seeds of an intractable stand-off were planted last May, when the faculty of the university’s drama department—including the department’s chair, Gitta Honegger—approved Angels as a graduate thesis production for directing student Christopher Bellis. (Bellis had also suggested Euripides’ Medea and Tirso de Molina’s The Trickster of Seville as other possibilities, to which he told his teachers he was “equally committed.”) Honegger said that the faculty thought long and hard before okaying Kushner’s Pulitzer-winning work. “We had to decide whether Christopher was ready to face the challenge and whether he had the maturity to handle the play. We decided he did.”
Bellis and his cast of eight graduate actors immediately went into rehearsal. Three months later, in late August, the trouble started. Honegger was notified by the university’s provost, Msgr. John Wippel, and its dean of arts and sciences, Antanas Suziedelis, that there would be an advertising ban on the production, and that no admission could be charged. Why it took the administration so long to react is unclear, but its interdiction came just after the drama department’s brochure, in which Angels had been prominently displayed, had been sent to-and was being held up at the school’s in-house printer.
What was clear was that the university-which is the only one in the U.S. chartered by the Vatican-had taken a close look at what the play was about, and wasn’t pleased. “The provost told me that because it shows homosexuality in practice, it is against the school’s mission,” said Honegger. Anna Marie Decarlo, director of media relations at the university, concurred. “Because of the content, it was deemed contrary to the mission of Catholic University,” she said. When asked to clarify exactly what aspect of the mission Angels contradicted, Decarlo patiently explained: “Well, I think you must realize that the Catholic Church does not exactly endorse a homosexual lifestyle.”
The school’s action started a letter war between Bellis and the administration. In a letter to the editor of the school newspaper, The Tower (which he forwarded to Suziedelis, Wippel and the school’s president, Brother Patrick Ellis), the director outlined his concerns about the ban. “The university’s action,” he wrote, “which I personally believe is a form of censorship, has created a climate of fear which is inappropriate for an academic community.” He also admitted “a fear that the university may take further action.”
Four days later, Dean Suziedelis replied with a letter in which he questioned Bellis’s judgment in choosing a play such as Angels. “It would be poor judgment,” Suziedelis wrote, “for a student of art at Yeshiva to propose a garden of swastika sculptures as a thesis project. It was not,” he continued, “a prudent choice to state Angels in America as a thesis project at Catholic University.” (“I think the letter was written in haste,” said Bellis later, taking a charitable view.)
In a final reply to Suziedelis, Bellis demanded “a personal apology” for the attack on his judgment and the comparison of homosexuality to Nazism. Three days later, Suziedelis called Honegger and the rest of the drama department faculty in for a meeting in which he offered them an ultimatum: They could either cancel the play altogether, move it off campus, or limit access to only graduate students, faculty and people from the professional theatre. “We were asked to give out a non-transferable ticket, so that no one who had not been invited would be allowed in,” said Honegger. “That meant the general public and undergraduates.”
“The response I got from undergraduates was basically outrage,” said Bellis. “I mean, we have undergraduates who are in their forties!”
Honegger brought the options to the company, and it was decided that the play, which was scheduled to open in less than a month, be moved off campus. The problem was finding a venue on such short notice. Honegger made a call to Douglas Wager, artistic director at Arena Stage, who came to the rescue. “Doug said, ‘Actually, you’re calling at a good time, since the Old Vat [one of Arena’s three spaces] is open,'” Honegger noted. “He was so magnanimous.”
For his part, Wager saw this as an opportunity to branch out to the university community. This is a perfect opportunity for Arena to join Catholic University’s Theatre program in an exciting way,” he said. “This project also allows us to indulge our mutual desire to explore adventurous and important plays.”
After hearing about the controversy, Kushner himself made an appearance at the university. “He didn’t come to see the play,” said Honegger, “because he’s made a pledge to himself that he would never see another production. But he came and spoke to the students about the play and this experience-he was wonderful.”
By the time the play opened on Oct. 12, the special-ticket phone line was ringing off the hook. Within days-with no advertising but (much to the university’s dismay) plenty of local press-every performance of Millennium was sold out, as were the two readings of the second part of Kushner’s play, Perestroika, which the cast also performed. “It turned into one of those occasions where theatre really matters. It’s painful to think about in a greater context, but the production itself became a deeply moving and rewarding experience.”
Nevertheless, for all the good feelings around the production itself, there is an unresolved and rather bitter ambience in the air (one alumnus, angered by the school’s treatment of the students, even returned his MFA diploma). And although the administration has turned a blind eye to the controversy—“The play is going on,” said Decarlo, “so the student does have academic freedom”—the integrity and independence of the drama department and its students is clearly in question. “We’ve been developing a good training program here,” said Honegger. “All of this is so raw and new for me and my colleagues. All of us need some time to sort it out.”
Still, Honegger does take solace in the enthusiasm from the students, Arena and the general public. “At a post-show discussion the other night,” she said, “the point came up that gay and lesbian children are often abandoned by their parents. And someone said, ‘Well, that’s exactly what the university did.’ The difference is that this show found a surrogate parent.”