Nick Westrate (Prior Walter) and Michael Kevin Darnall (Louis Ironson) for Angels in America, Part One: Millennium Approaches. Photo by Tony Powell.
TIME OF PLAY / TIME IN PLAY
Tony Kushner’s two-part epic Angels in America deals with and is defined by time. Everything about how we experience the plays, the circumstances of their creation, and the existential quandaries of the characters are all highly charged by time. In important ways, plays routinely operate within dual, or more, timeframes. The time and place of viewing a show characterizes one timeframe. Another is marked by when and where plays are set. Additionally, time and circumstances around the creation of works offers yet another timeframe within which works function.
Angels in America premiered at San Francisco’s Eureka Theatre Company in 1991 and the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles in 1992. For a rewarding analysis of the creation and subsequent productions of the play, I enthusiastically recommend the book The World Only Spins Forward by Isaac Butler and Dan Kois, which presents a keenly curated oral history. Let’s look briefly at the world in which the play is set and how ideas of time are manifest in our production’s set design.
Part 1: Setting (Time of Play)
Angels in America, Part One: Millennium Approaches takes place October-December 1985. This setting is just four years after the earliest official reports of what would later become known as AIDS began circulating. On June 5, 1981, the CDC (U.S. Centers for Disease Control) published an account of a rare pneumonia in five young, previously healthy gay men in Los Angeles and received a separate report from a New York dermatologist detailing a rare and aggressive cluster of cancer called Kaposi’s Sarcoma, or KS. Within days, the Associated Press and other media outlets ran reports of similar cases around the nation.
On September 24, 1982, the CDC introduced the term “AIDS” (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome). Prior to that, the illness was variously described as “Gay Men’s Pneumonia,” “gay cancer,” “mysterious fever,” and “GRID” (Gay Related Immune Deficiency). While the first commercially available blood tests to detect HIV (Human Immunodeficiency Virus, a retrovirus which causes AIDS) were rolled out in 1985, there was no cure nor workplace anti-discrimination protections for individuals living with HIV/AIDS. Most initial labels and early media reports emphasized that outbreaks were happening exclusively within gay male communities, which facilitated indifference and silence in the wider public.
The Reagan Administration was alarmingly silent on the AIDS epidemic. In July 1985, Hollywood leading man Rock Hudson became the first major U.S. public figure to announce that he had AIDS.