The Renaissance of Angels in America

I regularly teach the American Literature Survey in my department–all three parts of it. My academic expertise technically only covers the last two courses, which at our institution cover 1865-1914 and 1914-present, respectively. (But I actually love teaching the first part, beginnings to 1865, quite a bit. And we may be overhauling the surveys in the future. But that’s another post.)

In the final survey course, I always end with Tony Kushner’s Angels in America. It’s a great ending point for my syllabus, which traces the broader stylistic genres of Modernism, Naturalism, and Postmodernism, along with the eras of the Harlem Renaissance and Beat Movement. Since Angels is one of the most postmodern American texts I can think of, besides The Simpsons, it also functions as a culmination for students’ critical reading and analysis skills.

Last year, I had the great fortune to see IUS’ own production of Part I of Angels, Millennium Approaches. This is a play that isn’t performed very often, and the campus production was wonderful and a great opportunity for my students. In this past spring semester, I was able to share with my students the story of how Roy Cohn, a major character in the play, and Republican candidate for President Donald Trump were close friends and colleagues. Cohn was a mentor of Tump’s, in fact, until Trump dumped him after the truth about Cohn being gay and having AIDS became public.

This summer, it so happens that we are coming up on the 25th anniversary of the play’s first production(s), and there is a host of material emerging that is going to enrich my syllabus for this fall. Here’s a roundup:

Slate’s Oral History – This is a comprehensive history of the play and its most significant productions, from the story’s conception in Kushner’s mind to the HBO film and the lasting legacy of the play in US culture.

PBS’ Great Performances Documentary – I actually haven’t watched this entire video yet; it was linked in the Slate article and can be viewed in multiple parts here at YouTube. What a great opportunity for students (and the rest of us!) to see firsthand the elements of production and interviews with the creative teams that made the play happen.

NatGeo: The Ozone Hole is Shrinking! – This is a fascinating, interdisciplinary resource that I will provide as “deep context” for students. The character of Harper is rather consumed with the hole in the ozone layer, and her anxieties about her own life play out in her anxieties about the end of life on earth due to the weakening ozone in the atmosphere. Her final speech recalls a dream she has about the hole in the ozone being repaired by the souls of those who have passed, and it brings her some measure of comfort as she leaves her husband to start a new life. I typically have to explain the issue of the ozone layer to students, as they tend to be too young to remember CFCs and why we don’t all use giant aerosol bottles of AquaNet anymore. (Or maybe that only reveals more about my teenage hairstyles than anything else.) This article gives a good background of the ozone layer and its slow repair, thanks to international cooperation.

These resources excite me because I am always stressing to my students that what we study in the classroom is not limited to the the four walls of that room. Our texts and analysis of them have reverberations in our daily lives and in the culture around us. Providing these sorts of connections makes that more clear to students and allows them consider texts in a larger, hopefully more relevant, context.


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One Response to The Renaissance of Angels in America

  1. Pingback: Angels in America at the Actors Theatre | Sharyn Emery

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