Tony Kushner Reflects On The Power Of 'Angels In America'

Aug 13, 2014

Angels in America, Tony Kushner's 1985 epic play, kicked off the Intiman Theatre season this week.
Angels in America, Tony Kushner's 1985 epic play, kicked off the Intiman Theatre season this week.
Credit Intiman Theatre

Tony Kushner was an aspiring playwright with only a single play produced when the artistic leaders of San Francisco's Eureka Theatre asked if he would write something for them.

Kushner recalls they had a $50,000 grant to mount a new work; that included a $10,000 stipend for the playwright. That seemed like a fortune to the aspiring writer.

The commission blossomed into Kushner's best-known work, the seven-hour, two-play epic, "Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on American Themes."

"Angels in America" went from San Francisco to Los Angeles to London, before it wound up on Broadway. In 1993, Kushner won the Pulitzer Prize for Angels. Ten years later, HBO produced a film adaptation that starred Al Pacino, Meryl Streep and a host of other A-list actors.

It's hard to succinctly sum up "Angels." Part of the action revolves around Louis and Prior, a gay couple whose relationship starts to unravel when Prior is diagnosed with AIDS. We also meet Joe Pitt, a conservative young Mormon working for a Republican politician. Joe and his wife, Harper, have relocated to New York, where Joe struggles with his sexual identity.

Tony Kushner in San Francisco for the 20th anniversary of Angels in America.
Tony Kushner in San Francisco for the 20th anniversary of Angels in America.
Credit Wikimedia Commons

Then there are the actual historical figures in the play: Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, and arch-conservative Roy Cohn, who is alleged to have died from AIDS.

Despite its complexity, "Angels" has been widely produced. Kushner says it surprised him to find out that high schools regularly produce the play.

"At first I was shocked," Kushner says. "Not about the gay stuff, but sex in general. I grew up in the Deep South, and we just didn't talk about it in high school."

Then he laughs. "We did it; we just didn't talk about it."

Although "Angels" is set in 1985 and tackles AIDS politics, the Reagan administration and attitudes toward homosexuality, Kushner doesn’t believe it is dated.  

"A play doesn't work effectively or reliably as a historical record," Kushner states. "If it's going to work as theater, it's going to work because it's dramatically effective."

And the continued popularity of Kushner's epic attests to its power.

Seattle's Intiman Theatre was the first regional company in the United States to produce "Angels," in 1994. Now, 20 years later, Intiman presents a new production of the two-part drama. It's directed by Intiman Artistic Director Andrew Russell, who worked with playwright Tony Kushner before his move to Seattle.

The Intiman cast features Seattle stage veterans Anne Allgood, Marya Sea Kaminski and Charles Leggett, among others.

Intiman opens its production with Part One of "Angels," "Millennium Approaches," on Aug. 14th. In September, the theater company begins performances of Part Two, "Perestroika," then continues both plays in rotation.

"I hope it'll continue to move people," Kushner says. "All I can do is write, and let that happen as it happens."

The Seattle production of "Angels in America" at the Intiman Theatre runs through Sept. 21.