Twenty-five years ago, Tony Kushner’s Angels in America premiered on Broadway, swept the Tony Awards, won the Pulitzer Prize, and changed the way gay lives were represented in pop culture. For a 2016 Slate cover story, Isaac Butler and Dan Kois assembled an oral history of Angels. Now Butler and Kois have expanded that story into a book, The World Only Spins Forward: The Ascent of Angels in America, out Tuesday. Through more than 250 interviews with actors, directors, playwrights, and critics, the book tells the story of Angels’ turbulent rise into the pantheon of great American storytelling—and explores the legacy of a play that feels, in an era when freedom and civil rights still feel under siege, as crucial as ever.
Much of Angels’ impact was in scores of ambitious productions across the country, far away from the bright lights of Broadway. Putting on the epic two-part drama has become a rite of passage for theaters in cities large and small across America and around the world. In this exclusive excerpt from The World Only Spins Forward, actors, administrators, and journalists tell the story of one such theater that went to court to fight a local government that wanted to shut the play down—and won.
Keith Martin (producing and managing director, Charlotte Repertory Theatre, 1990–2001): We got the rights to Angels in America in 1994, but we produced it in 1996.
Tom Viertel (producer of the Angels in America national tour, 1994–95): We intended to tour in Charlotte and the Charlotte Rep begged us not to come, to let them do it themselves.
Steve Umberger (director of Angels in America at Charlotte Rep, 1996): We were growing. We had done some challenging work, we had just started doing collaborations with the Charlotte Symphony: Midsummer, Romeo and Juliet, The Tempest, full text, with orchestra, working on a big canvas. Expanding our audiences.
Perry Tannenbaum (founder and editor, Creative Loafing Charlotte): There were only six theaters in the United States that were being allowed to do the show that near to the Broadway production. It was a big deal.
Viertel: They were so passionate about this that we agreed to let them do it. And they did it, and they were all fired. They literally dissolved Charlotte Rep.
Doug Wager (artistic director, Arena Stage, Washington, 1991–98): The 1990s were the peak of the culture wars that broke out with the assault on the National Endowment for the Arts.
Brian Herrera (assistant professor of theater, Princeton University): The culture wars were a tipping point. Up until then, even though there was contestation with the NEA, there wasn’t a sense that it was going to go away.
Wager: The NEA imprimatur is the thing that gives the foundations their incentive. So the absence of that imprimatur gave funders some really good reasons to avoid anything too sticky or controversial, in general.
Herrera: Queer people and people of color became poster children for what conservative America doesn’t represent, like Robert Mapplethorpe and Piss Christ. It was a way of using particular artists to mark a line in the sand and say we therefore do not support the arts. And using the shock of the artists and their work and their identities as proof that they were corrupt and thus unworthy of funding and, by extension, not good Americans.
Wager: All of that was giving politicians—putting them into a cold sweat, and giving them a justification for suppressing, diverting, or cutting federal funding for the arts.
Greg Reiner (director, theater and musical theater, National Endowment for the Arts): In 1992 we had $172 million. And then in ’96 that’s when we lost 40 percent of our funding. This year our funding is $150 million, which is close to what it was in pure dollars, not counting inflation, in the mid-’90s.
Umberger: We didn’t do Angels to create any sort of political sensation. I think Tony Kushner felt … we were the smallest of the companies, and I think he had some sympathy for that. He was also certainly aware of the political climate, and Jesse Helms.
Kevin R. Free (Belize at Charlotte Rep, 1996): There were all these discussions about the New South versus the Old South. Charlotte was supposed to be the New South. The New South was supposedly progressive, more inclusive of gay inhabitants, people of color. The attitudes were supposed to have changed.
Umberger: Charlotte is the largest city in either Carolina. So you have this strange tension between an aspiration to be a “world-class place,” a phrase that’s been thrown around a lot in Charlotte, and a very small-town way of thinking that’s always been at the core: a Southern, conservative, churchgoing sensibility.
Lawrence Toppman (arts reporter, Charlotte Observer, 1980–2017): The boosterish talk about “a world-class city” didn’t reflect reality then or now. Even more than Atlanta, a city Charlotte leaders alternately mocked and emulated, Charlotte was an odd conglomeration of Northern transplants seeking warmer climates, workers imported by banks from other cities, and natives who still thought of it as an overgrown small town.
Martin: It was our due diligence that got us into trouble.
Tannenbaum: Part of what had been recommended was this sort of community outreach.
Martin: We created a series of communitywide education and outreach activities in hopes of shedding light on the difficult issues of the play, rather than heat.
Umberger: All of the events happened so quickly, a week or less.
Martin: The Charlotte Observer went Page A1 with the following headline: “Theater Aims to Avert Storm Over ‘Angels’ Drama.”
Tony Kushner’s seven-hour epic, which Charlotte Repertory Theatre opens March 20 in the North Carolina Blumenthal Performing Arts Center, has been hailed as the play of the decade, the winner of one Pulitzer Prize and two Tony Awards as best drama.
It also contains nudity, a simulated homosexual act and adult language—elements that have caused trouble for Charlotte’s cultural organizations in the past.
In one scene, a young man with AIDS takes off his shirt so a nurse can check his lesions. “Only six. That’s good,” she pronounces. “Pants.” The young man drops his trousers so she can continue. He is as naked as the day he was born.
—Tony Brown, “Theater Aims to Avert Storm Over ‘Angels’ Drama,” Charlotte Observer, March 6, 1996
Tannenbaum: The head of the so-called Concerned Charlotteans, the Rev. Joe Chambers, sent a fax to City Council asking for a roll call about who supported this homosexual event and who didn’t.
Tony Kushner: Rev. Chambers was nuts. He had declared Barney the Dinosaur an agent of the devil. I mean, he was a hideous person.
The popular PBS kids’ show character is “straight out of the New Age and the world of demons and devils,” warns Rev. Joseph Chambers, who runs a four-state radio ministry based in North Carolina.
Barney, adored by millions of toddlers and preschoolers, is yet another sign that “America is under siege from the powers of darkness,” adds the politically active Chambers.
And for a donation to his 25-year-old Paw Creek Ministries in Charlotte, Chambers will send you a booklet explaining it all: “Barney the New Age Demon,” recently retitled “Barney the Purple Messiah.”
—Cox News Service, Nov. 25, 1993
Tannenbaum: After the fax was sent out, the Blumenthal Performing Arts Center, the City Council, the local attorney general, all enjoined the Rep from opening.
Scott Belford (director of public relations, Arts and Science Council, Charlotte, 1995–2000): It became a rallying point to question freedom in the arts.
Martin: Their lawyers tried to shut us down using the North Carolina obscenity law. But they couldn’t. Works of “intrinsic artistic and literary merit” were excluded from the law. The only legal option they had was North Carolina’s indecent exposure statute, because of the roughly eight seconds of full frontal male nudity.
The cease-and-desist order constituted prior restraint, because we had yet to break any laws. It also constituted an imminent threat, because I was named personally. That allowed me to seek judicial relief from the court in the form of a restraining order, which later was made into a permanent injunction. In six hours I had to find a lawyer, file a formal request, find precedent, a sympathetic judge, request a court hearing, deal with my staff, my board, the cast, the crew, the media, and get process servers.
Umberger: We all knew there was a chance the show wouldn’t open. There we were, at 5 in the green room before first preview, wondering, “What’s going to happen next?” We had worked for a year—were we going to be able to do the play?
Martin: At 4:58 p.m., two minutes before the clerk’s office closed, the judge’s order was signed and filed with the clerk, and process servers fanned out across the county to serve notice.
Umberger: At 5:15 or something, we found out we were doing it. The show was at 7:30, I think. So it was close!
Martin: We served the Performing Arts Center board and senior staff, the police chief, city police department, the county sheriff, the sheriff’s department, the DA and all of his magistrates, even the local and state alcohol and beverage control board, because we had a full bar at the theater and you can’t serve alcohol at a premises with full nudity. Anyone who had the legal authority to shut us down, we got an order against them. We were painting with a shotgun, not a rifle.
Angus MacLachlan (Louis at Charlotte Rep, 1996): We were warned there might be bomb threats, or that during the nude scene people might try to stop the show.
Tannenbaum: It turns out that the Concerned Charlotteans showing up en masse to protest the opening numbered 15 or thereabouts. And the number of people picketing in favor of Angels numbered between 150 and 200!
MacLachlan: It felt like two different factions, like what’s happening now in America. What Trump is doing, what the conservatives in America are doing, but most people didn’t vote for him. We had tremendous support from the community.
Kushner: They tried this direct assault, actually stopping it, and ran right into the First Amendment. I mean, it didn’t work, and in fact made it a huge thing, and everybody with a conscience in Charlotte felt they had to go and see it.
Martin: Opening night, I said, “Good evening, ladies and gentlemen, and welcome to Angels in America,” and there was a standing ovation. We hadn’t even done the show yet!
Be splendid tonight, be focused, have fun, make theater: That’s our way of repudiating the bullies, the killjoys, the busybodies and blowhards. We know the secret of making art, while they only know the minor secret of making mischief. We proceed from joy; they only have their misery.
—fax from Tony Kushner to Charlotte Rep, March 20, 1996
MacLachlan: That night was so electric, and so supportive, it was really about what you wanted it to be about: Kushner’s words, the events onstage. The feeling, the connection from the audience, was everything you want in a theater.
That’s what was happening, not the little noises from outside.
Martin: The headline in the papers the next day was “Judge: Let ‘Angels’ Play.” It was a bigger typeface than Kennedy’s assassination.
A last-minute court order Wednesday secured opening night for the tense cast and crew of the Pulitzer Prize-winning epic, which played without protest in city after city until it reached Charlotte. A group of Christian conservatives tried blocking the show over scenes of nudity, profanity and simulated sex.
Even after the legal victory, some expected an outburst during the nude scene, but when Charlotte actor Alan Poindexter dropped his blue slacks and for seven seconds faced the audience naked, no one said or did a thing.
—Tony Brown, Gary L. Wright, and Paige Williams, “Judge: Let ‘Angels’ Play,” Charlotte Observer, March 21, 1996
Belford: The show sold out and extended because it was in the headlines every day and there was so much discussion around it. A lot of people felt they had to see it to see what the fuss was all about.
Toppman: Charlotte Repertory Theatre never did a more accomplished show.
MacLachlan: Tony Kushner came down and saw it. I remember him saying this play has been done all over the world, in very conservative countries, and nothing like this had ever happened.
Kushner: They stopped the plane on the runway and suddenly all these policemen came on, and the stewardess asked me if I was me, and they helped me off the plane because they were worried about a death threat or something. It was nonsense, but it was exciting.
Martin: They picketed every one of the play’s 30 performances. They even showed up Monday nights. The first time that happened, they told the media they had successfully stopped the show. The police had to tell them we were dark on Mondays.
Tannenbaum: We were all very euphoric at the time. It remained, until the company folded, the most staggering hit they had. Eleven thousand people saw that show in Charlotte.
Umberger: The next season, we had a 20 percent increase in subscriptions, and when we polled people, they said it was because of Angels.
Tannenbaum: There was a tremendous feeling that this was a huge opportunity for Charlotte theater to expand. This is [laughs] obviously not the scenario that played out.
Free: I can’t talk about Angels without talking about Six Degrees.
Umberger: We had chosen [John Guare’s] Six Degrees of Separation for the next season. Joe Chambers or someone seized upon that as proof that we were continuing to violate standards, that it was bigger than Angels. We tried to defuse that, say that wasn’t what the play was about.
Free: It wasn’t nearly as good, but it became “Why is Charlotte Rep doing all these gay plays?” Six Degrees isn’t even really a gay play.
Martin: It’s available in the comedy section at Blockbuster.
Kushner: They did what these people always do: The next year they realized a full-frontal assault on civil liberties and freedom of speech wasn’t gonna work, so they defunded the Rep.
Martin: In November of 1996, the Mecklenburg County Commission became dominated by Republicans who had a stealth mission to defund the arts. The “Gang of Five,” led by Hoyle Martin.
Umberger: I think it was on April first. April Fools’ Day. It was a vote to defund the $2.5 million Arts and Science Council. It was funny, because they wanted to defund us because of Angels. But they wouldn’t say, “Well, we can’t give money to organizations that do gay material,” so they had to defund the whole thing, the 30-odd groups that got money from the council. That meeting started at 6 in the afternoon and went until 2 in the morning. There was an overflow crowd. It was a very tense and raucous seven or eight hours that had many speakers for and against. The head of the commission was not part of the Gang of Five. He voted against. Right before the vote he said, “Watch us, and forgive us.”
Belford: It was a 5–4 vote.
Umberger: That was 2½ million out the door.
Belford: The Arts Council funded programs for kids. The symphony. The opera. Just because this one group funded by the council did one play with a gay character in it.
Martin: Hoyle Martin went so far as saying we should ban all works that include the word homosexual, works created by artists who were homosexual. One minister railed from the pulpit about the works of Leonard Bernstein. One said they should ban The Nutcracker because Tchaikovsky was gay. I was “outed” myself, by Republican County Commissioner Bill James, the only one of the Gang of Five who is still in office. This was a surprise to my wife and teenage daughter.
Belford: It was a real wake-up call to the community. A black eye to Charlotte. We’re trying to be a very progressive, forward-thinking city.
Martin: Four of the Gang did not survive the next election cycle.
Belford: After the elections, the funding was returned and increased.
Tannenbaum: There was a dampening effect. It ushered in an era of extreme caution.
They actually convened—the Arts and Sciences Council—convened a task force where all sides would be represented and would issue guidelines for arts events in Charlotte. And of course any compromise would preclude events like Angels in America.
Umberger: I was on the task force. Also on that task force was Joe Chambers. Everyone had been invited to the table. All sides.
Tannenbaum: The appeasement from beginning to end of these wackos is really just startling.
Toppman: Charlotte Rep fomented controversy, wittingly or unwittingly, by responding clumsily to the negative comments. Self-righteousness, even when one is righteous, doesn’t convert or engage enraged people. Cowardly, confused politicians didn’t help.
Tannenbaum: It pretty much reaffirms what we’re seeing today in Charlotte. Some little thing, like a bathroom and who is supposed to go in it, stirs up a national furor.
Umberger: A lot of people assume that Angels is the reason Charlotte Rep closed. That wasn’t the reason. It was a supporting factor. People were tired. The theater staff was tired. The city was tired from all of the fighting. I was gone in 2002, and it lasted until 2005, but it happened when the economy was beginning to fail. Charlotte Rep needed another million bucks to keep healthy, but that money was nowhere to be found.
Toppman: No one came out of this mess covered with glory, except the actors and technicians.
Martin: I have almost one and a half file drawers from Angels. Of the thousands of articles, there’s one that’s my favorite, an editorial from March 24, 1996, in the Charlotte Observer. The headline is “Bravo Charlotte Rep.” “In this conservative city, on this matter, that took guts. Bravo.”
Excerpted from The World Only Spins Forward: The Ascent of Angels in America by Isaac Butler and Dan Kois. Published by Bloomsbury USA. Portions of the book first appeared in Slate.