COVER STORY

RISING ANGELS

For the first time, a local theater group is bringing 'Angels in America' to a Northeast Florida stage

Posted

March 14, 15, 20-23, 27-29. 8 p.m. Thur.-Sat.; 2 p.m. Sun.

Players by the Sea's Main Stage, 106 Sixth St. N., Jacksonville Beach

General Admission: $23; Student/Military/Senior: $20

249-0289, playersbythesea.org

This story begins, as so many do, with an angry parent.

In 1997, the mother of a student at Douglas Anderson School of the Arts learned that her kid’s advanced theater class was going to read and discuss Angels in America, Tony Kushner’s Pulitzer Prize- and Tony Award-winning 1991 play, an undeniably seminal work in the pantheon of American theater. She became, in the words of Jane Condon, the school’s principal from 1986 to 1996, “quite agitated. There was always a choice. [The students] were given a choice and if any parents wanted them not to read it, we provided an alternative assignment. This parent was not satisfied with that.”

The mother — whom Condon remembers as the owner of a Christian bookstore, though she can’t remember her name — took her case to the school board, where she found a sympathetic ear in board member Linda Sparks.

Controversy ensued. The news media were called, and reported (wrongly) that the school was going to actually perform the play, not merely study it in a classroom. The school board convened a committee, which voted to “remove” — a more pleasant euphemism for ban — the play from Duval schools. (Today, Angels is one of 10 literary works deemed too dangerous for the young minds in Duval County schools.)

It was too adult. Too profane. Too inappropriate. And it was most certainly too gay.

Told in two parts, Kushner’s highly nuanced, enigmatic seven-hour work isn’t what you’d consider family-friendly, at least in the Disney sense of the term. The play fearlessly, but with a sense of humor and camp, explores love, politics, race, death, homosexuality and AIDS in a 1980s America that is cracking open and breaking apart. It features deeply flawed and complex characters and themes: a gay couple who break up because one is too weak and selfish to care for a deteriorating partner; a Valium-addicted, sex-starved Mormon housewife and her deeply closeted gay Mormon husband; a villainous, closeted homosexual and conservative political figure who categorically denies his AIDS diagnosis even as he wastes away; a plethora of bad language; a sex act between two men.

It’s that last part that’s especially important: If the play were about heterosexuals, no one would have cared, let alone demand its censure.

Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire includes alcohol abuse and violence against women, including a (heterosexual) rape; Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex delves into incest; J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye oozes with profanity and teenage rebellion; Shakespeare’s plays are rife with adult themes — Hamlet alone is a smorgasbord of the risqué. All are kosher in Duval County schools.

Angels is not.

It wasn’t in 1997. It wasn’t three years later, in 2000, when a teacher at Paxon School for Advanced Studies literally ripped the play out of her students’ college-level literature textbooks — even though she wasn’t actually teaching the play — after a student’s mother complained. (That same year, Sparks, who did not return calls for comment, tried and failed to ban Alan Ginsburg’s Howl, which also features gay sex.)

And it’s still not in 2014.

“Who on the right side of history ever called for burning books, banning books?” asks Sam Fisher.

On March 14, Fisher will direct Players by the Sea’s production of Angels in America: Part I: Millennium Approaches. (Players will perform Part II, Perestroika, next year.) In most places, this would be a non-event. Angels has been staged all over the world. It’s been turned into an opera that aired on PBS. It’s been made into an Emmy-winning HBO miniseries starring Al Pacino. A 2010 national poll of theater professionals by The Denver Post ranked it behind Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman as the second-most important American play of all time. And while the play was once very polarizing and very controversial, that’s no longer really the case, not in this day and age, when 17 states and the District of Columbia allow gays and lesbians to legally wed, when there are openly gay professional athletes and politicians and TV characters, when the forces of discrimination are quite obviously waning.

But Northeast Florida is not most places. In fact, Players’ production will mark the first time Angels has ever seen a local stage.

“It’s a really important time to do it here, I think, right in the middle of this change that is going on,” says Daniel Austin, who plays the effeminate, AIDS-afflicted protagonist Prior Walter.

Here it’s not just a play; it’s a statement.

Whether Players’ production is any good or not doesn’t really matter. Nor does it matter if you think Kushner’s play is genius (as I do) or an “overwrought, coarse, posturing, formulaic mess” lauded only for its subject matter, as a New Republic critic wrote in 2003. What matters — both for this city and its (let’s be honest) less-than-daring theater scene — is that it’s happening at all.

In the early ’90s, Angels offered the gay community a beacon of hope in a world beset by discrimination and hatred and death. Could it signal the same two decades later for a city in the midst of an identity crisis?

Northeast Florida isn’t the only place where Angels ignited a battle in the culture war. In 1996, after a theater company in Charlotte announced that it would be performing the play, protests raged. Public officials threatened to jail the actors. The publicly owned theater’s management threatened to bar the company’s access to the building. In the end, it took a state judge’s order for the show to go on.

But Charlotte has evolved since then. Mecklenburg County has protected its LGBT citizens from discrimination since 2005. Even in 2014, Jacksonville does not — no human rights ordinance, no domestic partnership registry, nothing. The Bold New City is open for business but not quite open-minded. And while other cities experience cultural enlightenment, many of our leaders seem quite happy to sit in the dark, hoping no one dares turn on the light.

That’s not to say things haven’t gotten better. Local attorney and activist Carrington “Rusty” Mead recalls that in the ’90s, “LGBT people were often harassed when they were in a ‘straight’ area. We had certain areas of town where we belonged [and] the reputations of those areas was quite negative.”

That’s not so anymore. But it’s one thing to share a neighborhood with someone; it’s another to give a damn about the way the city treats him — in silence lies complicity and in complicity, acquiescence.

In spite of the two decades that have slipped away since Angels first debuted, the play remains particularly relevant here.

“I like doing art here,” Austin says. “I like doing shows here. I feel that I can make an impact. Here you can do things like [Angels] and it can actually have a community impact.”

Throughout the ages, the arts have provided a forum to challenge oppression and question the moral majority. And though its music and visual arts scenes are becoming ever more vibrant, Jacksonville’s theatrical community is still a tween, caught between infantile productions of antiquated classics and more mature fare.

“The fear has been, don’t breathe on [the theater] or it will fall down, Fisher says. “We’re not viewed as a cultural epicenter, which wouldn’t be embarrassing if we weren’t so large.”

Players by the Sea says it isn’t producing the play just to antagonize those who oppose LGBT rights. At the same time, however, it’s fair to say they’re rather openly courting (if not hoping for) controversy. Austin told me he believes at least a few audience members will walk out. But what if they don’t? What if, to borrow a phrase, Players throws a party and no one shows up?

I called two of the most vocal opponents of LGBT rights on the Jacksonville City Council, Don Redman and Kimberly Davis, to see if they had anything to say. Neither returned my calls. Same goes for Jeff Burnsed, senior pastor at Coral Ridge Baptist Ministries, who publicly thanked the Lord after the City Council rejected the human rights ordinance in 2012. It could be that they don’t know about the play, but it seems equally likely that they don’t care enough to comment.

Would that mean the old battle cries no longer carry the same currency?

If so, then all you’re left with is the play itself. That’s fine, says Austin. They just want to put on a great play. Fostering a dialogue is just icing.

“We’re not doing anything wrong,” he told me. “We’re performing a Pulitzer Prize-winning production.”

That should be enough.

On a spring-warm night in mid-February, I sat in the theater with Fisher and a few other souls to watch a vibrant group of actors rehearse Act Three. Though early in the rehearsal process, the energy that danced across the lines and moved around the stage was mesmerizing, as was the fluid chemistry among the actors, none of whom have previously worked together.

Having not seen Angels for several years, I’d forgotten the glittering black comedy and poignant, heartbreaking moments that punctuate one of the greatest, perhaps the greatest, play of my lifetime. As they laughed and joked and eyed the nosy reporter in their midst, there was an inescapable sense that each is aware they are taking on a great and important production in a city that is finally, finally, finally (hopefully) ready. Whether they inspire protests and rage or foster a dialogue that softens hearts and opens minds — or a little of both, or neither — they are putting it all on the stage, as written, come what may.

“My fear is that, like a lot of great art in the city, it will happen, people will applaud and then it will be over and nothing will be different,” Fisher says.

Let’s hope not.

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