Tony Kushner's sweeping, Pulitzer Prize- and Tony Award-winning play Angels in America is extraordinary — in scale and scope, thematic elements and ingenious characterization. Angels is set in the mid-1980s, following several individuals whose lives are deeply affected by the tragedies of the AIDS epidemic. It premiered in 1991, to audiences whose lives were no doubt deeply affected as well. In a twist of fate, a new production at Valencia College premieres this week for audiences also reeling from a global health emergency.
Taking on Kushner's lengthy and epic script is a feat that requires dedication and emotional commitment of the highest degree, making Jeremy Seghers' decision to produce Angels in America at Valencia College Theater all the more inspiring. A production of Angels has not been seen on Central Florida stages for around 20 years, making the timing of this one all the more auspicious.
Seghers is a freelance director and producer who typically focuses on site-specific immersive theater, but he knew he wanted to bring Angels in America to the stage from the moment he first encountered the script.
"I first read it in my junior year of high school in 1993," says Seghers. "It blew my mind. I'd never read anything like it. It was audacious and groundbreaking, and I knew I wanted to work on it in some capacity someday."
Seghers has been working with Valencia on the process of producing Angels for over two years and had originally planned to open the show in the spring of 2020. However, the world was then hit with a very different kind of pandemic.
When attempting again to take the stage in 2021, quite a few hurdles remained, blocking the way for the creative team to move forward. Now, in 2022, Seghers's vision for "Millennium Approaches" is able to be fulfilled — and all involved have hopes of completing Part Two ("Perestroika") in 2023.
While the narrative of Angels centers on the political and social climate of the mid-'80s, its themes focus on people struggling to stay connected in a period of isolation.
"There are many parallels between the AIDS epidemic — which of course started as a pandemic — and the current pandemic," Seghers explains. "The sheer fear of the unknown, of how the disease is spread, the toll that isolation takes, and the disparities experienced by certain communities compared to others."
Valencia's cast for Angels in America is comprised of faculty members, actors from the surrounding community and students at the college. The journey of putting on such an intense show has presented opportunities for all the collaborators to work through challenges, make discoveries and grow as artists. It was important to Seghers that he created a safe rehearsal space for dealing with the particularly sensitive subject matter.
Edwin Perez, a freshman at Valencia College, plays the role of Prior Walter, a character diagnosed with AIDS before the start of the play. "Angels brings in perspectives and information from a different time period and puts it into a new light," says Perez. "No one in the play is good or bad. They're all just human."
Another focus for the director was to cast as many queer actors in queer roles as possible, as Angels works to remind the gay community how the AIDS epidemic impacted their own history and connections to previous generations of LGBTQ+ individuals.
"I think it's incredibly important to remember that the AIDS epidemic wasn't that long ago and that it all but wiped out an entire generation of gay men. This current generation, some of whom are in this production, don't have as many queer role models because of it," says Seghers. "It's necessary to remind them and everyone how close we still are to that loss, even as we struggle with our own loss. It kind of feels like a birthright."
Perez is also passionate about the significance of LGBTQ+ awareness throughout Kushner's script.
"This story is as important today as it was when it was first seen on a stage," says Perez. "The newly introduced 'Don't Say Gay Bill' will bar LGBTQ+ discussions in Florida schools. People will be going through our education system without the knowledge of this crisis and the impact it had on the LGBTQ+ community educating people on what happened and humanizing the victims of the disease. Although progress has been made, there are still leaps and bounds we need to take in order to be where we need to be."