Coby Aloi describes Macalester’s production of “Angels in America” as a “look at the harsh reality of the AIDS epidemic.” Aloi is a senior at Hamline University and plays the closeted historical figure Roy Cohn.
Macalester ’s production “Angels in America, Part I: Millennium Approaches” is directed by visiting artist instructor Faye Price ’77, who recently won the McKnight Distinguished Artist Award. This play is written in two acts, which are typically performed separately because of the total length of the play. Macalester is performing Act I of the play. In the original production of “Angels in America,” theater and dance faculty member Harry Waters Jr. created the role of Belize.
This play grapples with the AIDS epidemic by following the quickly entangled gay couple of Louis Ironson and Prior Walter, and the straight couple of Joe Pitt and Harper Pitt. The couples are accompanied by a small cast of characters that develop and grow throughout the first act as they have to face their own internal struggles with mortality and identity.
John Oatney ’23, who plays Walter, an openly gay man with AIDS, cites this play as his all-time favorite.
“For the time it was written, it was phenomenal in its representation of gay men on stage, which you didn’t get very often,” Oatney said. “Tony Kushner put together this play that highlighted gay experiences and the horrors of the AIDS crisis, giving you this very serious and inclusive story about wonderfully flawed characters going through something traumatically real and not shying away from telling you how horrible their reality is.
“The most famous AIDS story on stage is ‘Rent,’ which avoids all of the terrible parts of AIDS. They’re basically just characters with AIDS and don’t talk about it,” Oatney continued. “But with ‘Angels in America,’ you start to [understand] how hard it is when people leave you, how hard it is to go through being ill, the internal struggle with mortality and how the brain deals with dying.”
“It is a really interesting exploration of sexual orientation and religious, ethnic and racial identity,” Miles Latham ’24, an assistant stage manager, said. “It negotiates those questions in a way that may or may not resolve all of them but grapples with issues of identity in an interesting way.”
In addition to this play being an important part of queer, American and theatrical history, the set and effects of this play are impressive in their own right according to the cast.
“Our set and our technical design are phenomenal,” Oatney said. “There are some surprises that we’re doing with the set pieces that everyone in the cast is really excited about, which is something really cool and not necessarily what you’d expect from just a play.”
The set is complex, with lots of moving parts and technical elements that require specific timing to work properly. There are several scene changes that happen on stage, while actors are still performing.
“When we do it right, it’s going to look awesome with lots of supernatural elements in the show,” Latham said.
Finally, Anna Schloerb ’23 who plays Harper Pitt, emphasizes that this play is also timely in the parallels between when it was set in 1985, and the present day “AIDS epidemic and COVID-19 pandemic.”
“The play deals with themes of life, death and other big questions,” Schloerb said. “I think art can be a way for us to think about and explore how we understand the current world through artistic lenses.”
The performance also plays on both political and social themes that mirror the present.
“This is a show about an epidemic while we’re in another pandemic and dealing with many of the same political issues,” Latham said. “1985 is the middle of Reagan’s terms in office, and we’re dealing with many of the same political issues that we were back then and in some regards, ‘Angels’ feels a little bit like a prologue to current issues that we have today.”
Performances will be held in the Main Theater in Janet Wallace Fine Arts Center at Macalester from Thursday, Nov. 4 to Saturday, Nov. 7. Tickets are free, but required in order to attend. The box office is open for an hour and half before the start of the show, and reserved tickets must be picked up to 30 minutes before the start of the performance at the box office.
Macalester students are required to present Macalester ID and non- Macalester audience members need to show proof of a COVID- 19 vaccination or a COVID-19 negative test taken within 48 hours before the performance in order to attend. All guests are required to wear masks inside the venue regardless of vaccination status.
The content warnings for the play are stage violence, sexual content, mentions of death/suicide and general mature content.