"Angels in America" Returns to Charlotte

18 years after its controversial debut, CAST revives the play
Actors J.R. Jones and Bob Paolino rehearse CAST’s production of "Angels in America."

Onstage at Booth Playhouse, the character of Prior Walter was naked. A nurse checked the fictional AIDS patient for lesions as a packed audience looked on.

Outside the theater, 15 people marched with signs proclaiming “Keep Charlotte Clean” and “Homosexuality Is Not Art.” It was March 20, 1996, and they were protesting Charlotte Repertory Theatre’s performance of Angels in America, a seven-hour, two-part play exploring social and political themes dealing with homosexuality.

Rev. Joseph Chambers of Paw Creek Ministries was the public face of the “Concerned Charlotteans” protest group. “This is a play filled with vulgarity, filled with explicit scenes, filled with unsafe sex,” he said, according to the New York Times.

Five county commissioners were among those who shared Chambers’s objections. The worst part, critics said, was that the show was publicly funded. It received county money, distributed by the Arts & Science Council.

In 1997, the County Commission stopped funding the ASC. This translated to a $2.5 million annual loss for local arts groups. Two years later, the funding was restored, but Chambers had made his point. “Look, if people want their voice heard, then they should pay their own bill,” the 78-year-old minister says today. “But I believe in free speech, and I believe in social responsibility.”

Others saw the outcry as a brutal embarrassment for the city. “My wife and I had been here for two years, after moving from Toronto,” says Thom Tonetti, a local actor and theater director. “We just could not understand what all the fuss was about.”

Today, Tonetti and director Charles LaBorde sit at a table in a cluttered back room at Carolina Actors Studio Theatre. Eighteen years after that controversial debut and nine years after the Charlotte Repertory Theatre was forced to close, Angels in America is back in Charlotte. LaBorde and Tonetti are directing the show for CAST.

“The play is set in the absolutely most raging part of the [1980s AIDS] epidemic,” LaBorde says. “Thom and I both knew people in the theater then—people were just dying.”

Angels in America’s two parts, Millennium Approaches and Perestroika, follow Walter, a homosexual man dying of AIDS. He has visions, including an angel visiting to tell him he’s a prophet. But the broader narrative follows several intersecting lives, all affected by the politics and social climate of 1985—a climate Tonetti sees reflected in today’s political debates over gay marriage.

“You can’t help but think about the equality of marriage and how that seems to be changing daily,” he says. “This play is about community, and it’s about being a part of something and recognizing everybody’s differences. It’s about those differences when you’re facing life and death and how they become meaningless. It’s about treating people with dignity.”

Actors slowly enter the CAST space. Before they begin rehearsing, LaBorde wants to read a passage from the script. It’s Walter’s closing monologue, spoken directly to the audience.

“This disease will be the end of many of us, but not nearly all …” he says. “We won’t die secret deaths anymore. The world only spins forward. We will be citizens. The time has come.”

Categories: Theater