In May of 1991, Millennium Approaches—the first half of two-part theatrical fantasia on the AIDS epidemic—was officially staged the cramped and crowded Eureka Theatre in San Francisco’s Mission District. The complete play, Angels In America, would go on to win a sack full of Tony Awards and become a cultural touchstone for how we discuss AIDS and the gay community it ravaged. Writing for Slate, Isaac Butler and Dan Kois have put together a phenomenal oral history of how the play was produced and how it was conceived.
In an early anecdote, playwright Tony Kushner recalls how the death “a very sweet man and very beautiful” acquaintance indirectly led to the piece of art that would define his career:
And I had this dream: Bill dying—I don’t know if he was actually dying, but he was in his pajamas and sick on his bed—and the ceiling collapsed and this angel comes into the room. And then I wrote a poem. I’m not a poet, but I wrote this thing. It was many pages long. After I finished it, I put it away. No one will ever see it. Its title was “Angels in America.”
Later, Kushner’s former boyfriend Mark Bronnenberg later details the attitude with which the young playwright approached his passion project:
I remember when Tony read me the first scene in Act 2 where Prior really breaks down physically, where Louis comes to the conclusion that he can’t deal with it, that he’s going to abandon Prior. Prior shits his pants and has blood all over him. Tony said, “I don’t want this to just be about AIDS. I want people to see AIDS.”
New York Times theater critic Frank Rich tries to explain the play’s significance and why it continues to resonate 25 years after its premiere:
It’s a history play, in the sense that it transcends what AIDS means in our culture now, or what it meant when the epidemic first hit, but it puts it in the context of America in general, not just the Cold War. Not just even in terms of Roy Cohn and certain kind of overlaps with the McCarthy era. But also the Mormon church, the most American creation among religions. And the sense of the sweep of the country over roughly a century, going back to immigration in the 19th century. It’s all there.
The oral history is much more than rumination on the historical and cultural significance of the play. It’s also a log of the multitudinous adversities that needed to be surmounted in the process of putting on a seven-hour, two-part piece of theater. Ellen McLaughlin—the actress who played the Angel in several early productions—recalls the a staged reading of Perestroika, the narrative’s second part, in 1991:
I came out as the Angel with the wings and everything and stood in front of the curtain and said, “Act 5: Heaven, I’m in Heaven.” And this woman in the front row said, “Act 5?! Oh my God! Do you know what time it is?!”
And I said, “No.”
And she said, “It’s midnight! How long is this act?”
And I said, “We’ve never done it so I don’t know, it’s 45 minutes?”
And she said, “The buses won’t be running!” Then she turned to the rest of the audience and kind of wondered aloud if they should stay. And they decided to stay, but she said, “That’s the end, right?”
And I said, “Well, there’s an epilogue.”
And she said, “Are you nuts? You have to tell him to cut it!”
Butler and Kois’ compiled retrospections on Angels In America is only slightly shorter than the text of the play it’s about, but for longtime fans of Kushner’s work, or people simply fascinated by the theatrical process, it certainly merits the time it takes to read it.