Sunday read: The miracle of ‘Angels’

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I remember Tony Kushner, though I seriously doubt he remembers me.

There’s no reason he should. In the summers of 1979 and 1980, I was one of many students at the Governor’s Program for Gifted Children at McNeese State University in Lake Charles, Louisiana. Kushner, then in his early 20s, was the director of the theater program, which scrambled to put on a show over the course of the summer session.

Even among a surprisingly diverse group of adolescents and counselors, Kushner was unmistakable, with his curly black hair, his glasses and his vocabulary. He looked like John Turturro in “Barton Fink” with bushier hair, or maybe Adam Sandler’s much smarter brother.

I don’t remember the show produced in 1979, but in 1980 the program put on Kushner’s own “Incidents and Occurrences During the Travels of the Tailor Max.” I hadn’t signed up for theater in 1979, but all my friends had so much fun participating that summer I joined in 1980. I vaguely recall doing some kind of stagehand/tech work. (The T-shirt, or at least a reproduction, is still available. Lord knows what happened to my original.)

And that was the last I heard of Kushner until “Angels in America” premiered on Broadway in 1993. Could this playwright, suddenly the subject of rapturous reviews, be the same guy I remembered from a Lake Charles student program? Amazingly, it was. (Lake Charles is not exactly known for producing celebrities, particularly gay Jewish playwrights.)

I saw “Angels” on its road-show stop in Atlanta and was overwhelmed. It remains a beautiful, powerful, pioneering work. Such language! Such characters!  What a glorious tapestry.

But, as an oral history in Slate reveals, it was a long road to get there, one that included theater company squabbles, casting changes and Kushner’s sometimes-frantic, sometimes-stuck work habits. In some ways, it’s amazing that the play made it at all.

Things only seem inevitable in retrospect, whether it’s the success of “Angels” or the talented playwright who once oversaw theater at a Lake Charles-based program for gifted students. Read the history and see how it happened.


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