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Author Dan Kois talks 'Angels in America' in new book
by Lauren Emily Whalen
2018-09-26

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As a college theater student, Dan Kois became obsessed with Tony Kushner's epic drama Angels in America. That obsession continued for years, fueling Kois' just-released book, The World Only Spins Forward, an Oral History of Angels in America ( co-authored by Isaac Butler ).

"I engaged with those characters and their struggles," Kois said of Kushner's saga of love and survival at the height of the AIDs crisis in the '80s. "After reading the first part of the two-part epic, [I] was waiting to see what would happen in Part Two, which I know now Tony was also trying to figure out," he said.

On Oct. 1, Kois joins with Chicago actors who brought Angels in America to life for a discussion of the book, the play and its impact on the world. The 7 p.m. event takes place at Victor Gardens Theater.

Angels in America Part I, Millennium Approaches debuted in San Francisco in 1991. In 1993, both parts of the roughly seven-hour play—Millennium Approaches and Perestroika—debuted on Broadway. In 1994, Chicago opened the first national tour of Angels in America at the Royal George Theatre. Chicago's second production of the piece was David Cromer's 1998 revival for the Journeyman theater. Cromer's reimagining, Kois said, is the only regional production that receives its own chapter in the book.

"Cromer's production made other theater companies feel like it's possible to do this play without breaking your theater company in half," Kois said of the Journeyman's vastly scaled-down black-box rendering.

"It can be a series of chamber pieces where the effects are used sparingly and are even more effective as a result," Kois said. Interviews with artists involved with Cromer's production made an impression on Kois. The Journeyman's intimate staging, he said, resulted in "an amazing community experience in which the entire theater community came together to rehearse, create and grab this play for themselves."

Angels in America has played throughout the world and launched many a career. The original Broadway production won the 1993 and 1994 Tony Awards for Best Play, and Millennium Approaches was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1993. Mike Nichols' 2003 HBO adaptation featured Meryl Streep, Mary-Louise Parker and Emma Thompson. The recent Broadway revival, a transplant from London's National Theatre, boasted Nathan Lane and Andrew Garfield among its star-studded cast. The 250 interviews in The World Only Spins Forward include conversations with Streep, Lane and Parker, among others.

The Oct. 1 event will feature Chicago's early Angels, including actors Jeff Christian, K. Todd Freeman, Philip E. Johnson, Elizabeth Laidlaw, Natasha Lowe, Ian Owens, Keith Phipps and Barbara Robertson.

The book began as a cover story for Slate, where Kois is an editor. "I pitched it as an oral history," he said. "Not only was the history of the play full of the great talkers of the last 25 years…but also the play itself is a real act of conversation. It's a series of dialectics designed to be oppositional voices put in the same room as each other, arguing about the things that matter most."

When the first draft of the story was 40,000 words ( roughly 160 pages ) Kois and co-author Butler knew they had a book. "We did a good job telling the story of the play's birth and Broadway, but what we hadn't told was the way the play reached the rest of America."

Was it difficult to get prominent actors, directors and writers, including Kushner himself, to talk? According to Kois, not a bit.

"The stories we got were great and the memories were vivid and the opinions were strongly worded. People wanted to go to the mat for something they did 20, 25 years ago," he said.

How, according to Kois, has Angels endured over two decades?

"We started the interviews in the summer of 2016," Kois said. With the presidential election, "the tenor of all those interviews really changed," he said.

People involved with Angels in America productions that happened at the peak of the AIDS crisis spoke of "creating art at a time of emergency," Kois said. That feeling is prevalent today, he said.

"For many people, it feels like we are once again at a time when activism is desperately necessary, and when our art can address the underlying energies that require us all to fight back against the forces that want to stop the world from turning," Kois said. "The lesson of [Angels in America] is that there's always going to be a crisis and an emergency, and art is the way we can navigate and negotiate."

The reading and discussion of The World Only Spins Forward: The Ascent of Angels in America is at 7 p.m. Monday, Oct. 1, at Victory Gardens Theater, 2433 N. Lincoln Ave. Copies of the book will be available for purchase, and a book signing will follow. The event is free but reservations are required as space is limited. To reserve tickets, call 773-871-3000 or email tickets@victorygardens.org .


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