“Angels in America” weaves the beginning of the AIDS crisis with the lives of six New Yorkers amidst the politics of the Reagan era.
Tony Kushner’s two-part play won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and the Tony Award for Best Play after it premiered on Broadway in 1993.
Conventional wisdom has long been that the production is too difficult and its subject matter too heavy, too metaphorical for a community theater. Presented in two parts, it’s over seven hours of theater.
For Lakewood Playhouse managing artistic director John Munn, those are some of the reasons he was driven to stage the play. It opened Friday.
“We’ve been told for years people won’t come to it,” Munn said.
Munn was a teenager in the 1980s when the play is set. He worked at a hospice for AIDS patients.
“I still remember their faces, their voices and their stories,” he said. “When I read ‘Angels in America,’ I could hear them in it.”
Munn and his actors began rehearsing scenes in June.
The News Tribune interviewed three of them for whom the play has a deep personal connection.
Tony Williams, 30, grew up in Alabama. By age 8, he knew he was different from the other boys.
In high school, he told a few friends he was bisexual.
“Deeper down, I knew I was gay,” he said.
It was a subject he could never bring up in his religious family.
“There was never any hope that I’d be able to talk to anyone about such things,” he said. “It was condemned by a lot of people. It was painful because I dealt with hearing a lot of homophobic things coming from the mouths of the people I attended church with.”
Williams saw the HBO mini-series of “Angels in America” when he was 17.
“I’m thinking, there are gay guys on my television screen,” he recalled. “They are not being ridiculed for being gay. They are living their lives openly.”
He was particularly taken with the character of Belize.
“It’s a black man who is gay and positive and isn’t being looked at like a thug,” Williams said.
While Belize is fictional, the character Cohn is based on the real Roy Cohn. He was Senator Joseph McCarthy’s chief counsel during the infamous communist hearings of 1954. Later, he worked for and was a mentor to a young Donald Trump.
Cohn, a closeted gay man, died of AIDS-related complications in 1986. He said it was liver cancer.
“He does represent a real type of character in our community,” Williams said. “We know those men who are internally homophobic and present themselves in a way because they don’t want their societal standing to fall.”
Williams found parallels between himself and Belize. Cohn is dismissive of Belize although he depends upon the nurse.
“I know what it’s like to take care of someone who looks down upon you and treats you as dirt,” Williams said. “Or to be seen as someone who is filthy or beneath someone based on your skin color. I’ve had friends who have had to stop talking to me because their parents found out that I was black.”
The play, although it’s 25 years old, is just as relevant today, Williams said.
“Our world is still like this,” Williams said. “Our world is still shutting out people for being different.”
Much has changed in the quarter century since “Angels” premiered. Williams never thought he’d see legal gay marriage in his lifetime.
“We’ve made leaps and bounds, and we’re more accepted in society, but we are not fully embraced by it,” he said. “We are tolerated.”
After high school and a try at college, Williams joined the Army. He wound up at Joint Base Lewis-McChord before leaving the service in 2014.
“I didn’t come out until I was far away from my family,” he said, still struck by how far he has come.
“It was darkness beyond darkness,” Williams said. “I am grateful I found my way here.”
Jason Quisenberry, 35, was first exposed to “Angels” in acting school when he was 21.
“I fell in love with it,” he said.
At the time, he connected with Louis — the character he plays in the Lakewood production. At first glance, Louis isn’t a sympathetic character. He abandons his boyfriend when the other man develops AIDS.
“Seeing this play brought home to me my worst fear,” Quisenberry recalled of his early 20s.
That fear was contracting HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. In the play, Louis is terrified of getting it.
Being HIV-positive isn’t the death sentence it was in the 1980s and early 1990s, but it’s still a serious medical condition today.
“I’m a gay man,” Quisenberry said. “It could happen to me. It could happen to my friends.”
Louis is a dream part for the actor.
“He’s always seen as the villain of the show, but he’s not,” Quisenberry said. “Yes, he’s a coward. But, he’s scared. He’s lived his whole life in fear.”
Louis is afraid of being abandoned just like he abandoned his lover.
Quisenberry can relate.
Five years ago, Quisenberry got so sick he lost the ability to walk. He spent two days in an Everett hospital, not knowing what had befallen him.
“Then they told me, you have a really rare type of pneumonia that’s common to people living with AIDS,” he recalled.
He can remember the room going dark, the doctor’s voice fading away.
“I went into a state of shock,” he said.
Two months later, his partner left him.
“It hit home to me in a lot of ways,” Quisenberry said of “Angels”.
Quisenberry said his health is good now, thanks to anti-HIV drugs. The virus is undetectable in his body.
He feels that the stories in “Angels” need to be told. History cannot be repeated.
“Because it was a gay disease, it was ignored,” he said. “Our government didn’t give a damn about gay men dying of this horrific plague.”
He wants his story known.
“If I can open just one person’s eyes about this disease and fight stigma — I’m all for it.”
In some of the promotional material for “Angels,” Lakewood Playhouse notified potential theater goers that the two-part play portrays same-sex relationships.
“I understand why,” Joe Regelbrugge, 45, said of the cautionary text.
The fact that it needed to be included underscores where society is on its acceptance of the LGBT community.
“That is why this play is so relevant and important today,” Regelbrugge said.
He hopes local audiences will see the play. Artistic expression can transform perspectives, he said.
“If I do my job right, I can help a lot of people heal and grow and open their mind,” he said.
Regelbrugge didn’t come across “Angels” until he was studying to be an actor.
“I’ve always thought the writing was so honest and powerful,” he said.
In “Angels,” Regelbrugge plays Joe Pitt, a deeply closeted gay Mormon who struggles with coming out. He’s also wrestling with his religion and with his job as a clerk at the U.S. Court of Appeals.
“In his mind, he must remain straight, heterosexual,” Regelbrugge said.
Regelbrugge hopes the audience can empathize with Joe as the man makes peace with being gay.
Regelbrugge’s personal relationships with Christians have influenced them, he said. In many cases, he has been the only openly gay man they have known.
“I feel like there is a responsibility to change the dialog and educate,” he said.
Regelbrugge thinks the nation is at a tipping point for LGBT progression.
“I think we’ve reached an apex, and now we have leadership in our country who are pushing it backward,” he said.
“My character has speeches about Ronald Reagan that I hear mirrored in speeches about Donald Trump,” he said. “History is repeating itself right in front of our eyes.”
Angels in America — Parts I and II
When: Today-March 17, check website for dates and times.
Where: Lakewood Playhouse, 5729 Lakewood Towne Center Blvd., Lakewood
Tickets: $26 adult, $23 senior/military, $20 student.
Information: 253-588-0042, lakewoodplayhouse.org/