“Angels in America” — a play that centers around the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s — is gaining new attention today. In honor of its 25th anniversary, an all-star cast is performing it on Broadway — including actors Nathan Lane and Andrew Garfield. This month Western Michigan University is also putting on the show.
By the time the play premiered in 1991, more than 120,000 people had died from AIDS in the United States. To accompany its performances, Western is borrowing pieces of the AIDS Memorial Quilt which represents people who died during the AIDS epidemic. It has more than 48,000 panels and claims to be one of the largest community art projects in the world.
The panels on display at Western commemorate people from Michigan who died of AIDS. Director and Western Theatre Department Chair Joan Herrington says seeing the names of those that died, where they were from, sometimes the things they enjoyed in life — it makes the epidemic real for those who weren’t around in the 1980s:
“How we treated those who were infected with the disease, how we treated those weren’t infected with the disease who we made assumptions about. How it polarized people in our society has relevance. So even if we are not in the midst of an AIDS crisis now — although there is a record number of people living with HIV — there are important lessons for us in this experience.”
Herrington says that’s a large part of why the university is doing this show — or at least the first half called “Angels in America: Millennium Approaches.” It’s about two couples whose lives become entwined.
The first is a gay couple — Prior and Louis. Prior has just found out he has AIDS and Louis is uncertain that he'll be able to stay in the relationship through this struggle.
Meanwhile, a Mormon couple — Joe and Harper Pitt — are having their own issues. Harper is addicted to valium. Joe is unable to admit that he’s gay and has spent his whole life fighting that because of his religion.
Herrington says in many ways the play is like a Greek tragedy.
“We come to it at the point of crisis in all of these people’s lives and watch what happens as they try to struggle for their own survival,” she said.
That being said, the play is a lot funnier than you would expect. Herrington says that’s something playwright Tony Kushner is known for.
Herrington says Kushner suggests actors play more than one role in the show — and that those roles be very different from one another. For example, the actress that plays Joe’s conservative Mormon mother also plays Ethel Rosenberg — a Jewish woman executed after she was convicted of spying for Soviet Russia.
“Part of what he’s exploring in this play is how despite our effort to differentiate ourselves from one another and to make space and to see the other as ‘the other,’ that in fact perhaps we may have more in common than we care to acknowledge,” said Herrington.
You can see “Angels in America: Millennium Approaches” at Western Michigan University’s Williams Theatre February 9-18.