Angels in America

Angels in America: Barbi VanSchaick, Alan Poindexter (Donna Bise)


Angels in America archive: Spinning forward in a perfect storm 
Behind the events of the best selling and highest profile production in Charlotte Rep's history


The short version, in three 1996 press quotes:


"Charlotte is believed to be the smallest city to produce its own Angels; many larger cities settled for the national tour. Be proud of Charlotte Rep. It not only won (the) struggles. It did so with grace, guts, and dramatic flourish." 
Charlotte Observer


"Against all odds, the Great Work continues. With the premiere of Perestroika, Charlotte Rep has proven equal to this most daunting challenge. ...Doing the whole work justice is an astounding feat."
Creative Loafing


"...the successful opening of Angels in America...is, on one level, about the intersection of morality and art, but it is also about the cultural tensions created when a Bible Belt town tries to move quickly into the first rank of American cities." 
New York Times


...


The long version:
We didn't know if the first preview would really happen until just before it did. After 20 months of preparation and rehearsal on the two landmark plays, a sudden injunction to stop the first performance on grounds of indecent exposure was stayed at 5 PM, just a few hours before the scheduled start. Playwright Tony Kushner couldn't join us until a few days later, but he quoted Martin Luther King in a note of support he sent that day: “’The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.’” The performance happened that night, but the arc was to be a little longer than anyone expected.

The issue seemingly was a brief scene in one of the plays in which a man with HIV undresses for a medical exam. But in reality the issues were not nudity or public arts funding. Those were convenient excuses to attack the plays' frank, empathic portrait of being gay in 80's America – something for which no legal or ethical objection existed.

Several years later I found an online study guide for the plays, designed for 7th to 12th grade - high school and middle school. I knew it had come to be taught in college, but its broader acceptance was a little more surprising to those of us who know it wasn't always thus. In 1996 Angels had just taken full flight after five years of regional development followed by London and New York productions. We produced it just two years after it was on Broadway, long before it was an award winning HBO film and before it became the towering classic it is today. It's subject, size and scope (two parts of 3-4 hours each about gay culture and the AIDS crisis in the U.S., subtitled 'A Gay Fantasia on National Themes') was then still startingly fresh. 1996 was definitely 'pre-study guide.'


The distinction of being one of the first six theatres in the country to produce the plays after their Broadway run came at a price: the lack of an established context in which the work might have been better understood and appreciated. Or maybe not. A city growing as fast and as disparate as Charlotte was - with many in the business community grabbing at world-class status (a frequent Charlotte PR claim) and just as many resolved that, as one city official put it, "We're not New York and we don't want to be" - was likely destined for a pile-up along its sociocultural highway sooner or later. Angels filled the bill, and then some.

When the full press campaign about the play's content hit the public radar in the week before opening, a conservative local minister accused the Rep of using its public funding to 'promote' homosexuality. Fueled by the media, the issue suddenly polarized this largest city in the Carolinas, with its mix of natives and transplants, liberals and conservatives, insiders and outsiders - a particular amalgam forged during a decade of rabid corporate and banking growth. The national press branded Charlotte 'ground zero in the culture wars.' The conflict escalated through Kushner's arrival for the opening (and well into the next decade), exposing the city's ambivalence about the arts as something more than a corporate calling card, and diversity as something more than a racial statistic.


Then, in the season after Angels, a Rep production of Six Degrees of Separation (another prominent play with a long pedigree, planned well before the Angels events) was attacked as another 'gay-themed play'- even though Six Degrees has only two short 'gay-related' scenes. Six Degrees was then leveraged by members of the County Commission - the so-called 'Gang of Five' - as a reason to defund its annual $2.5 million allocation to the city's Arts & Science Council. And the system of arts giving (with the ASC collecting most public gifts and then granting funds to affiliates) inextricably bound the groups. So the 5-4 county funding vote, in a packed meeting that raged on to a contentious 1 AM finale, effectively defunded all affiliates - all leading arts groups - for the next fiscal year.




...


It was never about nudity. True, we declined to alter Angel's brief nudity since it was important to the story and wasn't gratuitous (the court later ruled it "not properly the subject of criminal prosecution" and dismissed it). But that adjustment would have made little difference anyway. When one of the commissioners publicly stated that if he had his way all gay people would be "shoved off the face of the earth," it became clear that seven seconds of nudity in an onstage medical exam was not the real problem. Though the Gang of Five was unseated in the next election, it symbolized conflicting values in a city that had come of age without realizing the full implications of its growth. And the fate of the arts being co-opted by those who only cared about them as moral and political footballs galvanized all sides to action - or at least opinion.


News coverage as far-flung as the BBC was relentless, theatres around the country called to offer support, and the conflict was front page headlines for two years - not fading completely for more than a decade. (13 years later, playwright Eric Coble based his play Southern Rapture on the Angels events.) The spectacle played out against the jewel of the city's New South crown, the five year old Bank of America headquarters tower where the theatre was housed, which guaranteed the plays a center stage spot in the brightest possible spotlight. The initial events happened quickly, within a week of opening, and despite our standard due diligence of advance PR planning and advisories for mature-subject plays, the political and press winds of that week couldn't have conjured a more perfect storm. 

Some believed we had chosen Angels to advance a gay agenda, and some couldn't believe we weren't aware of the conflict the production might spark, both of which were as inaccurate as they were reactionary. Angels was already a Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award winner, recognized nationally as a new benchmark in American theatre in the many cities where it played without incident. It was a logical choice for a flagship professional theatre in a world class city. And its deep if unconventional spirituality provided a forum in which to explore ideas of faith - especially apt in a city ranking 8th for most religious venues per capita in the U.S. (via Business Insider). Charlotte had become the country's 17th largest city, a professed leader of the progressive New South, and Angels had promising, if not perfect, potential to prove the claim.


Rep staff and trustees purposefully chose the play to mark the city's growth, to challenge ourselves with demanding work, and to serve an audience we knew wanted to see it. Attendance for Angels was the largest and most lucrative ever at the Rep, and the run was extended by demand. Concerns about that attendance being largely controversy-driven disappeared with the next season’s 20% sales increase (due to the quality of Angels, according to surveys). Though sincerely invited, those who led the objections declined to be in the Angels audience ("My religion would not allow me to see it," said one) and did not experience the plays in the context of performance. While Angels may have been a bold choice for them, it wasn't for the many patrons who had subscribed to the Rep and its aesthetic for 20 years. We had expected Angels to engender discussion - and support for live theatre as a safe forum for it - but in the end it took the extremity of an event like Angels to break ground for any such discourse. 

Alongside being the culmination of the Rep's artistic work, Angels became a case study of the play's power and the medium's reach. Over the next decade, the city slowly but officially began publcly recognizing its LGBTQ citizens and their workplace rights (with Angels cited as a catalyst). The plays were later produced twice more by other groups with no issues, and gay marriage, remarkably, became legal in N.C. - all unthinkable in 1996. Ultimately, the story became its own landmark for the city and company's growth, and a noted part of Angels' history, referenced often in the global coverage of the plays over the years.


There are some who have blamed Charlotte Rep's closing on the Angels controversy and its seemingly endless aftermath. But the Rep's closing was a full nine years after Angels and had as much if not more to do with systemic issues for all arts groups as it did with Angels. Angels, ironically, realized much of its potential for the company. It raised the Rep's national profile, strengthened its artistic muscles, and boosted its ticket sales significantly in the short and long terms. The Rep had its best-attended seasons ever in the years after Angels.

When the plays had their first N.Y. revival in 2010 at Signature Theatre, Kushner reflected on the beginnings, saying, “I feel, going back now, that the early 90s, the late 80s, for all the horrors of the AIDS epidemic, were comparatively innocent and carefree times compared to where we are now. In the mid-80s, when I wrote the play, it included things about “eco-cide’... I really didn’t believe in my heart of hearts that the human race was threatening the survival of life on the planet. There’s now absolutely no doubt that that’s the case.”

In every era, it seems Angels has a vital capacity to show that, as one of its character says, “In this world, there is a kind of painful progress. Longing for what we’ve left behind, and dreaming ahead." We might have wished for Angels an easier reception, but we settled for the engagement it generated, the artistic and financial achievement it produced, and, ultimately, the humanity it encouraged.     
Steve Umberger 

"The Rep's production takes the company to a new level, and it has given us an experience worth debating."   The Leader



Press links: Charlotte Rep's 'Angels' in the media
New York Times article about the first preview 

Press during the 2010 NY revival - referencing the Rep
New York Times

Newsweek

Charlotte press
Observer coverage of Tony Kushner at the Rep

Observer/CL reviews of the Charlotte Rep production


POSTSCRIPT: Angels in America opened at Charlotte Rep on March 20, 1996. Almost exactly 20 years later, on March 23, 2016, N.C.'s Governor signed into law House Bill 2 (HB2), the so-called "bathroom bill" challenging transgender rights and creating another media firestorm. During Angels, the City Council and County Commission had condemned the play; during HB2, a progressive action by the City Council itself was the catalyst for the controversy (see the links below). Charlotte's Mayor during Angels was also the Governor who signed the HB2 bill 20 years later, and was unseated in the 2016 election just as the Gang of Five had been in 1998.


On the heels of HB2, in mid-August 2016, 130,000 people packed Charlotte's streets for a new Gay Pride. One month later, Charlotte joined the list of cities wrestling with racial tensions after the police shooting of Keith Lamont Scott. And a year earlier, a 2015 Harvard Equality of Opportunity Project study ranked Charlotte last in upward mobility among the 50 largest U.S. metro regions. History repeats and reveals itself, here reflecting how the city straddles the border between blue and red on the cultural map - often at the conflicted forefront of the issues as a unique and sometimes reluctant progressive outlier in the state's chiefly traditional and rural landscape. King (and Kushner) might say,"The moral arc of the universe is long but it bends towards justice." Or as Prior Walter in Angels in America says, "The world only spins forward."

         


Charlotte Pride 2016 (20 years after Angels) drew 130,000 people and mainstream sponsors.


AN ANGELS CHRONOLOGY IN QUOTES:

"(The production) is an accomplishment that is truly astounding for our city." 
1996, Brown, Charlotte Observer (review linked above)  
 

"Perhaps the biggest impact came in Charlotte... One headline called it a 'holy war.'" 
2010, Patrick Healy, New York Times (full article linked above)


 "'It changed my life,' says Willie Repoley (about the Charlotte Rep production), a straight actor still in his teens at the time and contemplating a life in the theatre. It taught him the power of theatre to convey the reality of people he had never even met."
2010, Hirshman, Newsweek, (full article linked above)


"I still regard Millenium Approaches as the best theater production, local or touring, I've ever seen in Charlotte." 
2014, Tannenbaum, Charlotte Creative Loafing


"Putting on the epic two part drama has become a rite of passage for theatres...This is the story of one such theatre that went to court to fight a local government that wanted to shut it down...and won."
2018, Slate excerpt from the book The World Only Spins Forward by Isaac Butler and Dan Kois, published by Bloomsbury USA





A QUARTER-CENTURY OF ANGELS:

The World Only Spins Forward (Bloomsbury USA © 2018 Isaac Butler and Dan Kois) was published to commemorate the plays' 25th anniversary. It chronicles the work's creation, production history and impact, through interviews with 250 people involved with the plays over a quarter-century. The book was published just ahead of the first Broadway revival of Angels in America, which opened on March 24, 2018 - almost exactly 22 years after Charlotte Rep's opening on March 20, 1996, and 25 years after the plays began their journey.

The Charlotte Rep production is included in The World Only Spins Forward. Here is the Slate excerpt of that chapter in the book.

For more photos of the Charlotte Rep production click here.

© 2021 Steve Umberger all rights reserved