• Laurie McCants

    I sympathize with Doug Cooney in his frustrated efforts to teach “Angels in America” to millennials under the time constraints of a survey course. But, in support of the students who responded to his article in their letter above, I share this: In the fall of 2013, I took on directing Thornton Wilder’s “Pullman Car Hiawatha” with a group of high school students. This play was written in 1931, full of references to its specific time period, and easily as surrealistic as Kushner’s play (it even has angels). In its scant few pages, “Pullman Car Hiawatha” presents all kinds of opportunities for the rigorous research any actor worth his or her salt must bring to the table. This research can readily translate into academic assignments. The actors served as their own dramaturges, delivering their research as class presentations and written papers. The topics we covered included:
    Thornton Wilder (his life and work); the Crash of 1929 and the Great Depression; Broadway Theatre in 1929/1930; Pullman Porters (their history and importance to the Labor and Civil Rights Movements); Hiawatha (in history and legend); the Treatment of the Insane in 1929-1930; the Mythology of the Planets; the Soviet Union, 1929-1930; Race Relations in the USA 1929-1930; the Hobo Culture; Railroad Jobs; Plato and His Idea of Beauty; Epictetus and His Stoicism; St. Augustine and His Mother; and the Archangels Gabriel and Michael. Yep, that’s all in this 16-page play.
    The students ended up loving this part of the work. One young man, nicknamed “Google” because of his enthusiasm for Internet research, looked up from his laptop several days into the work (I believe he had just googled the ancient Greek philosopher Epictetus) and exclaimed, “We’re going in deep, aren’t we?” These teen actors called upon to create the universe of “Pullman Car Hiawatha” came to sense their own significant place in the vastness of time and space. They were entrusted by their playwright with a difficult and radiant task. Empowered, they took that task to heart and soul. And in that moment, they became theatre artists. Via their deep research, the students fully experienced the vibrancy Wilder derived from his centuries-crossing, many-cultured referencing. And the play became their own. They delivered a gorgeous, hard-hitting, funny-sad, heart-felt show that will remain a treasured memory for those students and their audience. BUT IT TOOK TIME. We spent an entire semester researching, co-creating, rehearsing, and then, on one glorious weekend, performing a stunning production of this glorious play. Along with the students in the letter above, I encourage Mr. Cooney to not give up on “Angels” or the young people of today. I hope you can find the way and the time.