Angels in Our Town

Why Jesse Helms won’t be at opening night of Angels in America.


Jesse Helms makes national headlines by attracting funding for AIDS health care on the grounds that it is the product of sexual activity that is “deliberate and disgusting.”

The Rev. Joe Chambers, a Charlotte evangelist, is a regular on radio talk shows coast to coast with his anti-gay, anti-lesbian speeches.

And then, the Charlotte Repertory Theater becomes one of only six theater companies in the country to be licensed to produce Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, a Pulitzer Prize winning, two-part, seven-hour drama, entirely about the effects of AIDS on American society, politics, and religion.

So, what is going on here? Is Charlotte part of the gay-bashing South, or is it sort of a bastion of tolerance where anything goes in the name of “art?”

Well, yes.

The fact is that AIDS has had a significant and growing influence on the arts presentations in Charlotte for nearly a decade—an influence that is far out of proportion to the effect of the actual disease here.

This trend happened in part because of AIDS’ impact on artistic communities of major cities. Artists portray what they see and feel, the theory goes, and AIDS is a very big part of the life and the death of many artists. As a community that imports much of its arts, Charlotte is subject to the influences from outside communities.

In the case of Angels in America, the political and religious climates here were part of the attraction for Kushner. He included Atlanta, Chicago, Houston, Los Angeles, and Seattle, when he decided whom he would allow to perform the work that won him seven Tony Awards during its Broadway run.

“Kushner wanted it to be seen in North Carolina,” said Keith Martin, producer and managing director of the Charlotte Repertory Theater. “But were not doing this play because it has a gay character or because it’s about AIDS. We’re doing it because its worthwhile theater that we’ll be proud to present, and it will build future productions and audiences.”

AIDS in made its debut, if you will, on Charlotte’s artistic stage in 1987, when Theatre Charlotte (a community theater) produced As Is, about a homosexual couple, in which one partner dies from the disease. The play drew sold out crowds to Spirit Square.

In 1993, Charlotte Repertory Theater (the professional theater) presented Falsettos, a musical comedy featuring a gay couple that eventually confronts AIDS. The play pulled audience members from five states, surpassed Charlotte Repertory’s attendance projections, and didn’t provoke the picketing that plagued the play in Atlanta. “We were prepared for protests,” Martin said, “and they never came.”

Innovative Theater, a small local company, has regularly featured work with AIDS or gay themes, including a bittersweet farce in which the lead contracts “acquired toilet disease.”

Charlotte Repertory Artistic Director Steve Umberger attributes the local acceptance of AIDS-related performances to transplants from other cities, people presumably open to new idea and new experiences.

But that doesn’t explain entirely explain what’s been going on elsewhere in Charlotte’s arts community. Earlier this year, for instance, Nalle Clinic and the YMCA co-sponsored A Change of Face, an exhibit of photos that featured children and women affected—or infected—by HIV or AIDS.

With support from more than two dozen community groups, the Mint Museum hosted a major AIDS-related exhibition last November through January. Project Face to Face featured finely detailed plaster “life masks” of people with HIV or AIDS, including four from Charlotte. Recorded oral histories gave viewers a sense of the people they saw. It was one of the Mint’s most notable projects to date, attracting coverage on Good Morning America and students by the busload.

“More high school students came to the exhibit than to anything here since Rameses,” said Mint Curator Robert West. “They were visibly moved. We saw them starting to understand the impact of the disease in a way that statistics, preaching, and lecturing do not always succeed in doing. HIV and AIDS had never been made real to them before.”

“The Charlotte audience is not less sophisticated or able to deal with difficult work,” West said. “Were not New York City and never will be. But we can bring work that has a national reputation to Charlotte so people don’t feel left out.”

Part of this acceptance may be attributable to planning and advance work, so the theme and subject matter will not come as a surprise once the show or performance arrive in town.

West, for example began organizing “Project Face to Face” a year before it opened, making presentations to dozens of organizations. He found broad community interest, with the Mecklenburg County Health Department, American Red Cross, Presbyterian Hospital, UNC Charlotte, and twenty-one other groups signing on as supporters. “The Mint,” he says, “was perceived as a safe place, free of stigma and preconception. That really contributed to the success of the experience.”

West has also seen more AIDS-influenced art as director of the Charlotte Film & Video Festival, an annual event featuring some of the best independent films and videos from across the country. Charlotte filmmaker Stewart Grasberg and Carolyn DeMeritt won the festivals North Carolina Filmmakers Award for Just As I Am, a profile of a Salisbury man and his family as he dies of AIDS.

As West discovered art can be a powerful tool for education about social issues. Focus On Aids, a teen theater troupe sponsored by Planned Parenthood, performs for eighth graders throughout Mecklenburg County as part of the state mandated AIDS education curriculum.

Though the show’s dialogue is improvised, the plot always involves a teenager with HIV or AIDS. His girlfriend refuses to be tested for the disease, his sibling must give up a dream because the family has no money now to pursue it, and his parents endure tremendous strain.

“You see now how far reaching the it is, how one person with AIDS affects so many people,” said company co-director Paige Morrow.

The plot is left unresolved so that audience members can discuss it with actors. “Its hard for our audience to realize that people in their twenties with AIDS got it in their teens,” Morrow said. “But theater is so intimate. It gets into their hearts.”

Besides education art can also provide a potent method of fundraising for AIDS services and research. The Metrolina AIDS Project (MAP) has hosted late night cabaret benefits with the casts of touring companies including Les Miserables, Cats, and Jesus Christ Superstar. MAP also held a silent auction as part of its “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” fundraiser. Some sixty artists participated.

However corporate support in Charlotte has been mixed for AIDS-related art. Though Presbyterian Cancer Center sponsored the Project Face to Face exhibit, for example, Charlotte Repertory was unable to attract business sponsorship of Falsettos, despite its Tony Award and high profile. Martin is still looking for support for Angels in America. “We have some grant requests in, and well continue to market it (to potential supporters) like any other play,” Martin said.

MAP Development Director Keith Bulla explained explains Charlotte’s evolving taste with one observation: “Art has the power to brig a whole range of experiences and social problems and universal feelings to people,” he said. “Why would it not be effective in showing people the reality of HIV and AIDS?”

Angels in America is Charlotteans’ best opportunity yet to see the reality to which Bulla alludes. Angels is not a series of plaster masks or a comic musical. It is a nationally known award winning drama, whose subject happens to be homosexuality and AIDS. It is, as New Yorker critic John Lahr wrote, “a little piece of American theater history.”

It is also a sometimes funny, sometimes starkly moving portrayal of AIDS in society. In the play, a young man panics and deserts his AIDS-stricken lover. Intersecting is a husband-wife non-relationship, made so because the man stifles his homosexuality. These are people you know personally or have met, whether you realize it or not.

Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes will be performed by Charlotte Rep from March 20 though April 26.  

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