Reposted from the Court Theatre Blog. The first part of Angels in America opens March 30, 2012
“The World Only Spins Forward”
by Deborah Blumenthal MAPH ’11
Above: ACT UP New York advertisement, 1969, 1982-1997 (bulk 1987-1995).
I was seventeen when I first saw Angels in America, and it did, as it does, change how I saw the world. It was the magnificent HBO miniseries; I remember two cold, snowy Sunday evenings, tip-toeing around my house, covertly staying up far past my school-night bedtime to see it, and from my naive perch among the couch pillows, watching an entire unfamiliar history unfold from the glow of my Dad’s big-screen TV.
I don’t know that my parents would have let me watch it if they had known what it was, but it was almost by accident, really. I had tuned in just to see one of my favorite then-obscure stage actors on television, none the wiser to what I was about to see, other than that it had been adapted from a play I had never seen.
My most distinct memory from either of those two evenings is that I couldn’t sleep after watching the ending of Millennium Approaches. Not that I was afraid of an angel crashing through my ceiling (though of course you never know), but because Prior was so sick, and I was so scared. Watching it became, very quickly, about much more than just a beloved actor. Recorded VHS tapes were joined immediately by paperback copies and DVDs, a few years later by working copies for thesis notes and a holiday-gifted first edition. There’s a Tony Kushner section on my bookshelf, and each resident is worn with love.
I was born during the period in which Angels in America takes place. Having grown up in a school system that ignored, or at least sugarcoated, the existence of the AIDS crisis (I did have one teacher—elementary school art—who taught second and third graders about Keith Haring, much to the chagrin of some parents), encountering some of the AIDS plays as a teenager—first Angels, and a few months later, Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart, with Rent sandwiched in between—was like opening a pop-up book. Even in my high school health classes, AIDS was just a bad thing that happened to you if you didn’t use a condom, in no major way separated from other STDs. The curriculum gave some clinical biology, here’s what happens to your cells, but the politics and the details and the terrifying history were left out, and real understanding was foregone.
It’s not uncommon to hear from people my age, or even younger, that Angels in America changed their lives—which might be strange considering that we weren’t there. But for us it’s like a history lesson, live in living color, opening our eyes to a reality that we can only try to imagine. Progressive sex-ed or sugarcoated evasion, the AIDS epidemic has become incorporated into our cultural consciousness. My generation has no idea what it was like for it to barely even have a name. The immersion of the theater may be the closest we’ll ever get to understanding.
More on Angels in America after 20 years after the jump