I only had a ticket for the first play, Millennium Approaches, on that sweltering July day back in 1994. And not a very good seat, either—I peered down at Prior and Louis et al. from the second (third?) balcony of the Walter Kerr. But even before that searing matinee performance had ended, I knew I would somehow have to see Part 2, Perestroika, that evening. All I could find was a standing room ticket. And even though it was for a three-and-a-half-hour play, the longer and shaggier of Angels in America’s two halves, I wouldn’t have traded that view, or that day spent in the thrall of Tony Kushner’s epochal masterpiece, for the world.
Theatre people talk about formative experiences—indeed, in this special issue about the quarter-century legacy of Angels, we have an article in which a generation of playwrights talk about the play’s outsized influence on them, in an excerpt from Isaac Butler and Dan Kois’s capacious, essential new oral history of the play, The World Only Spins Forward. Among the many things in my life I’m grateful for, as I’ve written before, is to have come of theatregoing age in a time when Kushner and August Wilson, as well as Paula Vogel and Chuck Mee and Anna Deavere Smith and Chay Yew, among others, were forging fresh, vivid work for the stage. It was also, not coincidentally, a time when the Mark Taper Forum was having one of its most fruitful periods in what was then my hometown; though by a quirk of timing I didn’t catch Angels’ 1992 premiere in Los Angeles, the fact that it had its full world premiere there was both a huge feather in the cap for Center Theatre Group’s artistic director, Gordon Davidson, and a powerful sign that the American theatre was alive and well, and not only in New York.
It was a few years later that I read the plays (in the definitive TCG editions, natch), and, in my one foray into an entry-level acting class, performed the iconic Harper/Joe “Are you a homo?” scene with a fellow actor. I didn’t know then that this magazine had published Millennium Approaches (in June and July of 1992) or that Kushner worked at Theatre Communications Group for a time while he was writing the plays. It is often noted (around here, anyway) that almost alone among successful playwrights, Kushner has remained with his original agent (Joyce Ketay) and play publisher (TCG Books), a loyalty that he has more fitfully shown to some artistic collaborators, at least in the short term (i.e., his post-Angels split with director Oskar Eustis, long since more than repaired). This mammoth, history-cracking play, in other words, isn’t just an ephemeral experience I happened to share one summer on Broadway; Angels is also an industry, if you will, a piece of intellectual real estate that occupies a properly large territory in the ongoing professional life of myself and many of my colleagues, not to mention the theatre institutions and artists we serve.
You can see it all through this issue, with coverage of new productions in Berkeley and Atlanta, a nod to the play’s trans-Atlantic history, an excerpt from The World Only Spins Forward, a slide show of Angels photos from the past three decades all over the country: The queer, questing prophetic imagination of a great American artist has firmly taken root and flourished in the soil of the American (and world) theatre. That’s cause for unambiguous celebration. Still, as Butler’s and Kois’s rough-and-tumble narrative shows, it was hardly inevitable that this fixture of our cultural landscape should have happened at all. It was birthed, stood upright, and finally flew thanks to visionary artists and producers who fought for it as much as they fought each other, and in spite of many steep setbacks. As we rightly marvel at the continuing flight of Angels, it would be a shame and a disservice to its legacy if we neglected to nurture the fledglings in American theatre’s nest who are destined to crack our stages open if only they can get the support and the advocacy. We need them as much now, or more, than ever.
Support American Theatre: a just and thriving theatre ecology begins with information for all. Please join us in this mission by making a donation to our publisher, Theatre Communications Group. When you support American Theatre magazine and TCG, you support a long legacy of quality nonprofit arts journalism. Click here to make your fully tax-deductible donation today!