We continue our series of posts featuring people's thoughts on the power and impact of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America. Click here and continue checking back for more words from Broadway cast members, our current cast and creative team, Signature’s past Playwrights-in-Residence, and others in the theatre community. We also want to hear from YOU -- click here to find out how you can contribute.
"I first encountered Angels in America during the fall semester of my senior year at Ithaca College, when it was suggested by my Drama Lit professor that I read the play ahead of the class assignment; she thought it would make a good project for me to direct as a workshop production (which was our glorified way of saying “staged reading with props”). I went home and consumed the entire seven-hour, three-hundred-page leviathan in one sitting. For as long as I live I will never forget that afternoon: laughing with Belize and Louis, weeping for Prior and Harper, gasping at Roy and Joe, and marveling and the jaw-dropping audacity of the thing: to write a socialist-American history of the age of AIDS and Reagan through the eyes of the marginalized and the dying, and to do so in a way that is both utterly harrowing and wildly entertaining, that is both high- and low-brow, that is both empathetic and empowering, is one of the most fabulous declarations of “I am” I have ever encountered. And yet when I think back to that afternoon/evening, it is with a fair amount of sorrow. The first reason for this was that I remember feeling, not even ten minutes after finishing the play, that I would never be again feel the exhilaration of reading it for the first time. I sat on my sofa for several minutes almost in a state of paralysis (full disclosure: I may have had a few drinks while reading the play), then dragged myself to bed, eager to find my professor the next day and tell her how much I was looking forward to staging a reading. I climbed into bed and checked the alarm on my cell phone, the screen of which revealed what I would only know twenty-four hours later to be the second reason for looking back in sorrow:
“11:35 PM MONDAY, SEPTEMBER 10, 2001”
It wasn’t until much later that I was able to think back with even a sliver of clarity on the days and weeks that followed. I was in shock. We all were. It was like we were asleep to the world around us and were only awoken by the pain of our own hearts breaking. I wasn’t naïve to the negative consequences of America’s role as lone global superpower, and I believe to describe the pre-9/11 world as “more innocent” would require one to cover himself in a thick shroud of ignorance. However, to this day I find myself thinking over and over, “If I knew then what I know now.” But there was no way of knowing. You could have read the entire works of Noam Chomsky (which I pretty much had) and still not had any idea of what direction the world would head in. When those planes hit their targets, they blew a giant hole in history itself, out of which spewed pure uncertainty. (People make a habit of looking back to the days after 9/11 and wistfully noting that Bush had the world’s sympathy and affection, and squandered it. I guess this testifies to the ubiquity of uncertainty, the idea that reasonably intelligent people thought Bush would actually do the right thing.) The old paradigms would no longer hold. A membrane had broken. All around us was the rubble of the past, and as the world kept spinning uncontrollably into the future, I was straining to understand the present.
To make matters worse, 9/11 was the day I lost my faith in images. The myriad ways in which images were being manipulated to whip us into some kind of jingoistic nationalist froth convinced me that images were not to be trusted, as they were almost inherently prone to lie (this is quite a devastating revelation for a film student). As a result of this, while my friends and classmates were reaching for their cameras to make sense of it all, I had no textuality with which to, if not comprehend, than at least recognize what Aeschylus called “the awful grace of God.” I had no vocabulary with which to interpret the tensions that seemed to be ripping apart the fabric of Western civilization. I had no language with which to express (in a way that didn’t make me sound like a militant) that the thing I feared most was my own nation and the torrent of hatred it was likely to unleash on the world. It felt like this was the moment when the xenophobic, apocalyptic undertones of the American right-wing would come raging to the surface and usher in the end of days. Everything swirling around us at that point was patently, maliciously Manichean, and while such absolutes comforted some, they terrified me: reducing the geopolitical rabbit hole to a two-sided prism of good-versus-evil was utter insanity. Like everyone, I felt terribly afraid and utterly alone; nothing I knew well enough to draw upon for strength could address the overwhelming feeling of abandonment that hung over me, the anger I felt toward those asked that ridiculous question, “Why do they hate us?”, or the guilt I felt at so selfishly wanting some kind of resolution visited upon me for having undertaken the debilitating task of simply living through the day. Emotional crutches felt hollow and simplistic; intellectual confrontation with history left me feeling like an idiot for being an innate optimist. I looked up at the brilliant blue sky that day and felt that gone was the time when angels fell to wreak havoc on the world; now it was only airplanes and ballistic missiles. I saw an empty heaven, and I had no way of confronting that.
So there we all were, violently jerked into a new world with no time to truly comprehend what had been lost and no real plan for how to deal with our initiation into the murderous reality we had managed to elude for so long. I went home some time later that day, and still sitting on my living room sofa was my copy of Angels. I picked it up and started rereading different parts. The scene that stopped me cold was a conversation between Harper and the Mormon mother. Harper asks, “In your experience of the world, how do people change?” Rereading this scene, I began to understand that, as is necessary when the world changes, we were on our own to do the stitching and then get up and walk around. We were just mangled guts pretending. The idea that a positivist change could only come as the result of unbearable agony resonated; at the time, surviving the horror of 9/11 required enduring unimaginable suffering. In the weeks that followed I poured over the play again and again. It became for me a framing mechanism with which I was able to comprehend that moment of history. And like the most thrilling works of art, it gave color and shape to what had been, for me, abstract notions of tragedy, fidelity, justice, compassion, wisdom, and love. It simultaneously expanded and honed my comprehension of the devastation wrought by the gale-force winds of progress (as Walter Benjamin put it), and helped train my ears to the birth cry (which all too often comes in the form of a dying scream) of new life at its term (hat tip: Seamus Heaney). It cannot possibly be understated how important Kushner’s words became to me:
—“Before the world becomes finally merely uninhabitable, it will for a long time before have become completely unbearable.”
—“It isn't easy, it doesn't count if it's easy, it's the hardest thing. Forgiveness. Which is maybe where love and justice finally meet. Peace, at least.”
—“I hate America. I hate this country. It’s just big ideas and stories and people dying and people like you. The white cracker who wrote the national anthem knew what he was doing. He set the word 'free' to a note so high nobody can reach it. That was deliberate. Nothing on earth sounds less like freedom to me. You come to room 1013 over at the hospital, I'll show you America. Terminal, crazy and mean.”
—“Maybe I am a prophet. Not just me, all of us who are dying now. Maybe we've caught the virus of prophecy. Be still, toil no more. Maybe the world has driven God from heaven and incurred the angel's wrath. I believe I've seen the end of things, and having seen I'm going blind as prophets do; it makes a certain sense to me. And if I hate heaven, my only resistance is to run.”
—“You are a battered heart bleeding life into the universe of wounds.”
—“In this world there is a kind of painful progress: longing for what we’ve left behind, and dreaming ahead.”
And, of course:
—"I've lived through such terrible times and there are people who live through much worse. But you see them living anyway. When they're more spirit than body, more sores than skin, when they're burned and in agony, when flies lay eggs in the corners of the eyes of their children—they live. Death usually has to take life away. I don't know if that's just the animal. I don't know if it's not braver to die, but I recognize the habit; the addiction to being alive. We live past hope. If I can find hope anywhere, that's it, that's the best I can do. It's so much not enough. It's so inadequate. But still bless me anyway. I want more life."
The enduring legacy of Angels in America in my life is the manner in which it instilled in me—through its magnanimity of intelligence and spirit, and abundance of outrage and empathy—the notion that it is a moral and ethical obligation to not abandon the struggle for justice, even though the struggle very often seems impossible; that it is imperative we stare into the deepest black until we find that needlepoint glimmer of light; that it is not impossible or irresponsible to imagine that there is a place where love and justice finally meet; that it is necessary to live past hope. (Had I been given a more Judaic upbringing, I’m sure this would have occurred to me sooner; as it was, I had such a sheltered WASPish upbringing that I got all the way to college before I learned that Hebrew and Yiddish are two different languages; not a proud moment for me.) In the decade since I first read the play, we have come through such terrible times, and it looks like we will have to endure further madness—just turn on the television and let the images tell you all about the decline and fall of the Republic—but I believe that true progress has been made, progress that doesn’t seem to move the needle when cast against the backdrop of the 24-hour American freak show, but is nonetheless real. Six years after homophobic legislation was used as a state-by-state wedge issue to swing an election, I am truly confident that my generation will be the last one to see laws passed banning gay marriage. Two disastrous military campaigns have turned public opinion against neo-conservative warmongering in ways that I thought only reinstating the draft could. The economic meltdown has galvanized opposition to economic inequality in ways that seemed unimaginable at any other time in the last thirty years. And even amid race relations that are still tense and combustible, no one can dispute that the color of the president’s skin is an irrefutable sign of progress. I am certain that, were it not for Angels in America, I would not be able to see this progress as anything other than blips along the way to inexorable decline. It wouldn’t have been too terribly hard to fathom a decade ago. But every once in a while, when we find ourselves at the utter midnight of hopelessness, a voice rises from the darkness and leads us to a place of knowing. A voice that reverberates through you so profoundly that you feel altered on an almost biological level, as if your heart will never beat the same way again. A voice so powerful and overwhelming that I can only think of it as the voice of God. Sometimes this voice comes from a person or group of people. Sometimes it comes from a work of art. Angels in America is one of those voices. It spoke, I listened, and nothing has ever been the same.
Very Steven Spielberg."
Jonathan Evans is a Senior Production Editor at Simon & Schuster