Court Theatre’s revival of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America
As the Hyde Park company produces Kushner’s masterwork, the playwright and artistic director Charles Newell discuss their growing partnership—and plans for the future.
An auspicious buzz fills the air one early-February morning at the Court Theatre’s rehearsal space in Hyde Park. About 50 people mill about, sipping coffee and orange juice. That everyone appears to be in a great mood is no surprise, given a recent string of sunshine-filled days, but more than the early blast of spring boosts this crowd.
Court artistic director Charles Newell arrives with a bag full of thick binders stuffed with massive scripts. He plunks them on a long table, along with a bunch of tangerines. He’s about to address the group on this, another first rehearsal of another new show for the venerable company. Beyond cast and crew, these gatherings usually attract only a handful of board members and University of Chicago faculty (the Court, while a professional company, is affiliated with the college). Today, however, many more observers have flocked here, including AIDS Foundation of Chicago reps and one self-described groupie.
This is not just the first rehearsal for any old show; it’s the first rehearsal for Angels in America, the two-part, seven-hour epic that no company undertakes lightly. And, thanks to a friendship with Newell forged out of mutual admiration, lauded playwright Tony Kushner is in the house.
Genius, agitator, raconteur, scholar: Kushner, like his work, defies facile description. His 2001 play Homebody/Kabul tackled the dire Gordian knot of Afghanistan even before September 11. In 2005, he broke into film with an Oscar-nominated screenplay for Munich, his first collaboration with Steven Spielberg (their second, Lincoln, arrives in December). But so far, Angels, whose two halves premiered in tandem in 1992, remains the 55-year-old’s greatest opus.
The play (adapted by Kushner for HBO in 2003) follows the faltering relationships of two couples, one gay and one Mormon. Set in the context of Reagan-era conservatism, it confronts a wealth of issues: the pain of coping with mental illness, the deterioration of the environment and the devastating march of HIV into the gay community. It also delivers one of theater’s greatest villain roles in Roy Cohn, based on the real-life, closeted lawyer-cum-power-broker who died of AIDS in 1986.
The first half of the epic, Millennium Approaches, won the Pulitzer and the Tony for Best Play in 1993. Kushner repeated that feat at the Tonys the following year for the second half, Perestroika. Since then, hundreds of productions have been mounted in the U.S. and abroad. Kushner doesn’t involve himself with most of them, but since he first saw a Court production of one of his shows in 2008, he’s been drawn back to the 250-seat theater. Angels, opening Saturday 14, marks the third time in four years that Newell has directed a Kushner script, and it probably won’t be the last: The playwright intends to craft a work that will premiere at Court.
Today, Kushner’s in from New York to work with Newell and the Angels cast. But first, in the South Side rehearsal room, the pair hold court for their guests. Newell playfully poses a question: “Why Angels in America now?” Kushner volleys back with his first laugh line of the morning: “You’re the one who’s doing it!”
The real answer: because Kushner asked. (“I don’t particularly remember having to goad,” he says later.) To Newell, the request felt like a calling. “Since first seeing it [on Broadway in 1993],” the director says, “I always thought, Wow, when I grow up, maybe I’ll get to do Angels in America.”
That same year, Newell moved to Hyde Park from Manhattan with his wife, actor Kate Collins, to take the helm at the Court, a company dedicated to producing classics. For almost 20 years, Newell, 53, has been slowly guiding the 57-year-old institution to new heights, expanding its definition of classic texts to include the African-American canon and musical theater.
Both those impulses led Newell to direct Caroline, or Change in 2008. The original musical—book and lyrics by Kushner, score by Jeanine Tesori—follows the entwined lives of the title character, a black maid in the ’50s, and the Southern Jewish family for whom she works. Receiving its Chicago premiere in Hyde Park four years after its Broadway run, Court’s version set a box-office record for the theater. Kushner was wowed.
“Through the regional-theater grapevine, he’d heard about the production,” Newell recalls. At the time, he and Kushner were nothing more than professional acquaintances. “I got a call from him saying, ‘Hey, I want to see Caroline. Don’t tell anyone Jeanine and I are coming.’ ”