Angels in America
Tony Kushner was born in Manhattan on July sixteen, 1956. His parents, both classical musicians, moved a year later to Lake Charles, Louisiana, and Kushner spent his childhood there. Growing up as a gay Jew in the Deep South, he has later said, made him more conscious of his distinctive identity as he might not have in heavily Jewish New York City. Kushner returned to the city for college, receiving a degree in medieval literature from Columbia University. After graduating, he taught in Louisiana for three years, then returned to New York for good, studying for an M.F.A. at New York University and writing and producing plays. His early works included an adaptation of Pierre Corneille's The Illusion in 1988 and A Bright Room Called Day in 1990.
Nothing in Kushner's early career, however, predicted the overnight success he attained when Part One of Angels in America, Millennium Approaches, opened in Los Angeles in 1992. Critical reaction to the play was immediately and overwhelmingly positive: the influential New York Times theater critic Frank Rich, for instance, called it "a searching and radical rethinking" of American political drama and "the most extravagant and moving demonstration imaginable" of the artistic response to AIDS. The play's Part Two, Perestroika, was greeted with similar adulation the following year. Kushner received bushels of awards for Angels in America, not least of which were Tony Awards for Best Play in 1993 and 1994 and 1993's Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Outside liberal literary and theatrical circles, however, the play sometimes sparked controversy. A 1996 production of Angels in Charlotte, North Carolina, for instance, took place only under protection of a court order after local officials threatened to prosecute actors for violating indecent- exposure laws, and productions in other cities were picketed.
It is impossible to appreciate the play without understanding something about the history of the AIDS crisis as well as the broader story of gays and lesbians in America. Although men and women have engaged in homosexual behavior in all times and cultures, it was only in the twentieth century that homosexuality came to be seen as a fundamental orientation rather than a specific act. In the United States, the modern gay rights movement began after World War Two, which brought millions of unmarried adults into close contact in large cities far from their families. Gay bars and political organizations existed mostly in secret in the 1950s and `60s, but New York City's Stonewall riot in 1969 helped usher in a period of growing openness among gays and greater public acceptance.
Although gay life flourished in the 1970s, many gays saw the '80s as a period of retrenchment and tragedy. The first cases of AIDS were diagnosed among gay men in 1981; within ten years more than 100,000 people died of the disease in the U.S. alone. In the early years of the epidemic, ignorance and fear resulted in widespread discrimination against AIDS patients, and the national media reported the story in a sensationalistic manner, if at all. Gays' anger about the mainstream reaction to AIDS became interlinked with political frustration, as a conservative backlash that began in the late '70s hindered the cause of gay rights. For many gay activists, Presidents Reagan and Bush symbolized the opposition: both men's administrations were at best uneasy with and often hostile to the gay cause, and Reagan remained silent on the subject of AIDS until 1987, when more than 20,000 people had died. Angels in America opened in Los Angeles in the same week that Bill Clinton, the first presidential candidate to openly reach out to lesbian and gay voters, defeated George Bush; among gays the play inevitably became associated with a sense of euphoria and political optimism.
Kushner has continued to write plays—such as Slavs! (Thinking about the Longstanding Problems of Virtue and Happiness), Hydriotaphia or The Death of Doctor Browne, and most recently Homebody/Kabul—though none have attracted the praise accorded to Angels. In addition, he has authored a number of essays and op-ed pieces and has delivered addresses at universities and political demonstrations. Robert Vorlicky, a critic and friend, says Kushner occupies "a kind of 'poet laureate' position for many of the disenfranchised an extraordinary, public intellectual." Although Angels so far remains the highlight of his career, it is a career—in drama, letters and political activism—that is far from over.
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