‘The great work’ continues: Talking about ‘Angels in America’ 25 years later

This month, Actors Theatre of Louisville is producing “Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes.” It’s an epic, incredible, Pulitzer Prize-winning work of art. It comes in two parts — “Millennium Approaches” and “Perestroika.” It’s about seven hours long total, and it’s maybe the greatest thing I’ve ever seen onstage.

Set in mostly in 1985, “Angels” deals heavily with the AIDS crisis and the devastating personal effects it had, but also on the government’s refusal to address the epidemic.

About a month ago, I started rolling around the idea of writing an article that would dive into the conversations that could happen around this piece.

I glibly threw out a question on Facebook: “Why are we still doing plays about AIDS?”

I got a lot of answers, and thought maybe I would follow the rabbit a little farther, but honestly I lost focus, and started to move on to something else.

Then I got a direct message from a close friend on Facebook. He’s an actor in the community, and he’s asked to remain anonymous for this article. We’ll call him C.

His message began:

“I haven’t told many people this. It’s sort of a ‘telling the people who need to know thing,’ but I have lived with an HIV+ diagnosis for just over two years.”

He went on to say how he thinks “Angels” and other plays that deal with the AIDS crisis are still important, mentioning another landmark play dealing with HIV.

“I think doing plays like ‘Angels in America’ and ‘The Normal Heart’ saves lives,” he said.

With a real person’s face on it, I couldn’t just move on to the next idea.

‘The Time Has Come’

“Angels in America” follows a handful of people, some possibly imaginary, as well as a couple of angels, dealing with the AIDS epidemic, and the changing nature of the world.

There’s Roy Cohn, a closeted gay man and a power broker, who is filled with homophobia, self-loathing and a lust for power. There’s his protégé Joe Pitt, a young, Mormon Republican with a failing marriage. Harper Pitt, who is married to Joe, knows her marriage is in trouble, and becomes increasingly reliant on pills to help her deal with that pain. Louis Ironson and Prior Walter are lovers, and Prior is dealing with the virus, and Louis is struggling to do the the same. Rounding out the main cast is Belize, a nurse who works with patients, including Prior, who is his close friend.

The paths of the characters all intersect during the course of a few months, as AIDS and the environment of shame and secrecy in the mid-’80’s takes it toll on their lives

Meredith McDonough is the associate artistic director at Actors Theatre. She’s also directing “Angels” for Actors Theatre.

She’s got her story with the play, stretching way back to the late 1990s when Actors Theatre produced “Millennium Approaches” — she was a directing intern at the time. She also directed it in grad school, and she has been in love with the play ever since. She knew she wanted to tackle it again, but even after she started working at Actors, the time never seemed right.

“And then Trump got elected,” said McDonough.

The mention of Donald Trump here isn’t just a vague political jab from some leftist artist. Cohn, the closeted power broker, is a real-world person of pretty great importance. Think of the phrase “the guy behind the guy,” and you’re pretty much describing Cohn.

Staunchly conservative, Cohn helps get Ronald Reagan elected, pretty much got Ethel Rosenberg executed, and mentored a legion of young Republicans men who went on to positions of power.

One of those boys? You guessed it. Donald Trump.

“You can’t ignore it,” said McDonough. “Roy Cohn’s living legacy is running the country.”

Cohn persecuted perceived communists, targeted other homosexuals in the government and military, bribed, lied and broke the law. He was disbarred shortly before his death.

The play treats Cohn as a deeply-flawed human, not a villain. But his actions and inclusion as a character place the politics of this play.

McDonough isn’t afraid to face those politics head-on, and sees a clear link to the current climate.

“We look at a government that says, ‘You are not like me, so I’m not going to support you, and if I can I’m going to get you out,’” said McDonough. “And I think that if the terrible, terrible time that we went through in the ‘80s and ‘90s were to resurface, I don’t think it would be any different now.”

A hop and a skip down the street from Actors Theatre is The Henry Clay. The theater there is the home of several independent companies, including Pandora Productions, Louisville’s LGBTQ-focused company.

It covers a great number of subjects and situations, but the basic rights of LGBTQ folk are regularly debated still, so the company is almost inherently political.

Pandora’s artistic director, Michael Drury, talked about the need for political theater.

“I think I could draw a lot of comparisons between the Reagan administration and the Trump administration, about dealing with the LGBT community, and that old adage that if you don’t know your history you are doomed to repeat. And I think there’s a fear that will happen.”

In “Perestroika,” the second installment of “Angels,” the idea of liberal-versus-conservative ideals is stripped down to its most basic component — change, or stay the same.

In a stunning moment of theater, the final seconds of part one, “Millennium Approaches,” Prior — a gay man dying of AIDS — sees an angel burst through his ceiling and proclaim, “The great work begins.”

But, in the second half of the play, we see the angel is not the savior we might have hoped for.

She proclaims Prior a prophet who must spread a gospel, which includes not moving forward too much, not changing. Stay where you are. The angel, the first of many we see, is afraid of the future.

McDonough suggests that fear is central in the clash between liberal-and-conservative ideals.

“This is a play that says, ‘I know you’re afraid of what you think is going to come, but that doesn’t mean we’re gonna stop moving and changing,’” she said. “And I think that’s the message that this country needs to hear right now, and this city needs to hear right now.”

A scene from “Millennium Approaches,” part one of “Angels in America.” (photo by Bill Brymer)

‘The dead will be commemorated’

Theater has the ability to put a face to an idea. It presents humans with whom we can sympathize, and that sympathy might thaw our opinions.

During the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, a huge number of plays dealt with AIDS in the LGBTQ community. In many ways, it is the era synonymous with the LGBTQ rights movement going mainstream. The crisis forced many people in the U.S. to see LGBTQ Americans as real people.

So while “Angels” is, in my opinion, the best piece of theater about AIDS, it didn’t happen in a vacuum.

When Actors Theatre announced it’d be producing Angels in its entirety, Drury decided Pandora would join the conversation by offering its audience “Falsettos.”

“‘Falsettos’ is a zany, sunny musical that is cheery and happy, and not until Whizzer gets sick do we even realize, ‘oh shit, that was during the Reagan era, that was ’81, oh my gosh,’” Drury said. “And it dawns on you.”

Drury hopes that “Falsettos” will help give more context to “Angels,” and help audiences think about the ‘80s and the silence and the stigma.

He wants to help broaden and continue the conversation, a conversation that must reach out to younger generations.

Unlike Drury, McDonough and myself, C grew up in a world where plays about homosexuality and AIDS were already in the forefront of theater. He’s in his late 20s, and, like a lot of people under the age of 30 or so, AIDS was already an understood thing.

C’s first exposure to “Angels in America” came through the 2003 HBO adaptation. He was a teenager at the time, and he watched parts of the adaptation with his mom.

He recalled her reaction to a sex scene between two gay men.

“I remember my mom just shutting her eyes. She does this a lot, like with violent things — she’ll shut her eyes and say, ‘Tell me when it’s over.’”

The message to C was clear: Homosexuality is on par with murder. While he eventually came out to his mom — and their relationship is incredibly strong now — there were a tough couple of years, and theater helped him through that time.

Out or not, watching a miniseries in one’s home is still lightyears away from the time period that “Angels” represents, when LBGTQ representation in film was limited to art house fair, and representation on TV was nonexistent, or deeply coded and unspoken.

It was a time of hiding, and of secrets. It was also a time when the medical community still knew almost nothing about what they originally called “Gay related immunodeficiency syndrome.”

McDonough highlighted one frightening and sobering reality from that time, something she and the cast talked about in rehearsal.

“During the time of the play, there wasn’t a test, so, like, no one knows if they have it or not,” she said. “You saw something on your arm one day, or you saw a lesion on your leg one day.”

‘We won’t die secret deaths anymore’

Many of the plays tackling AIDS aimed to remove the stigma.

Though he died of AIDS, the real Roy Cohn refused to admit it until the day he died, instead claiming he had liver cancer.

But even though decades have passed, there is still stigma attached, even in the gay community.

C talked about what it’s like to have HIV today: “Getting a diagnosis sort of throws you in the closet again, because even members of the LGBTQ community are judgmental of it.”

He’s kept his status mostly secret, though he was strongly considering coming out with his status for this article.

“There was part of me that really wanted to say, ‘fuck it, I don’t care,’” C said. “I just wanted to be that person that is like, ‘this is who I am, this is my status, and you’re going to have whatever opinions you’re going to have.’”

He decided not to use his real name, though, mostly because as an artist he wants to use his status to be part of the next piece of art about AIDS. He wants to tell his story his own way.

McDonough also talked about the lingering stigma of a positive diagnosis: “I don’t think the stigma has necessarily changed, and we talk about that a lot in rehearsal.”

While the gay community celebrates works like “Angels,” Drury can also recall an eventual backlash against it, and other dramas that centered AIDS in the narrative.

Pandora staged “The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told” in the early 2000s, not long into Drury’s tenure as artistic director: “It was the first AIDS-themed play that we had done, and our audience was like: why? Why do we always have to die of AIDS? Why can’t we die in a car wreck? Why can’t we die of cancer? why can’t we be murdered?”

In other words, what is the next story about the LGBTQ community?

As an artist, C reveres “Angels,” but he also wants to know what’s next.

“These plays have very little to say on what it’s like to live with HIV today,” C said. “I think new theater, that is more aware of how the situation is very different today, needs to be created and produced along with the classics.”

New plays could examine what it is like living with HIV today, and it could also address ongoing issues like the how important adequate healthcare is, or the importance of getting tested and knowing your status, something McDonough stressed.

“I think the conversation now is about getting tested, not because it’s a death sentence, which is what it used to be, but because like, you could be positive, and there is medicine for you,” McDonough said.

Testing is frequently available for free at Pride Festivals, clubs such as Chill Bar and other places that cater to LGBTQ folks.

It was actually at one of those places that C first found out he was positive. He got tested as an afterthought, like it was nothing.

“They were like, ‘Hey, you’ve probably got HIV. We’re scheduling a follow-up test next week.’”

Rami Margron and Mark Junek in a scene from “Angels in America,” part two, “Perestroika.” (photo by Bill Brymer)

‘The world only spins forward’

Despite the fact that many of us in the older generation can hardly believe how far the movement has come, there is still a long way to go.

“Even as we get more and more and more progressive as a country, I feel like these things don’t go away, and they don’t go away in 20 years, they don’t go away in 40 years, they don’t go away in 60 years,” said McDonough.

Conservative groups are still hoping to undo, or circumvent, the right for LGBTQ people to get married. The right to healthcare, including protections for those with preexisting conditions like HIV, is being debated as we speak. Bathroom bills are winding their way through state legislatures and appellate courts, and religious freedom legislation seeks to make it legal for corporations — not churches mind you, but businesses — to openly discriminate.

The conversation must continue and grow to encompass even more issues, examining the intersectional issues surrounding civil rights, poverty, sexism and discrimination.

We can’t go backwards, though C believes that everyone who is positive spends time thinking about how they could go back and make a decision that didn’t put their life at risk.

He says there’s a big part of him that probably wouldn’t change a thing.

“There’s just so much I learned about myself, and what I’m capable of surviving and dealing with,” said C. “I also learned the depths of my compassion, and my ability to understand. There’s no life experience that gives you the same education.”

Prior, the AIDS patient turned prophet in “Angels in America,” eventually rejects the angel’s message of stagnation.

There’s an epilogue to “Perestroika,” which is a Russian word meaning ‘the thaw,” set in 1991. Prior is standing there, surrounded by people he loves. He turns to speak directly to the audience.

“This disease will be the end of many of us, but not nearly all, and the dead will be commemorated and will struggle on with the living, and we are not going away. We won’t die secret deaths anymore. The world only spins forward. We will be citizens. The time has come. Bye now. You are all fabulous creatures, each and every one. And I bless you: More Life. The Great Work Begins.”

Angels in America continues at Actors Theatre until Oct. 10. “Falsettos” is onstage at The Henry Clay Nov. 9-19. With the proper treatment and healthcare, C’s HIV has been undetectable for a year and a half.