When was the last time you spent an entire day just listening — truly listening without assumption or judgement?
It’s a tall task but one that drama-duo Heather and Steve Hughes hope to inspire with their recent production of “Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes” at Western Colorado University.
The production itself has a long history in the United States, and even in our rural town.
“We were one of the first colleges in the world to do the show at all on a college level,” explained Heather Hughes, a Western graduate. “And we were the very first college in the world to do both part one and part two.”
Back in the early ‘90s, when e-mail was still a novelty to most, Western faculty member Ellen Seeling sent a message to renowned playwright, Tony Kushner. As the story goes, Kushner wrote right back — and with Kushner’s blessing, the theater department went full steam ahead to produce one of the most popular, if controversial, plays to date.
“Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes” is a two-part play by Kushner. The work won numerous awards, including the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, the Tony Award for Best Play, and the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Play.
The two parts of the play are separately presentable and entitled “Millennium Approaches” and “Perestroika,” respectively performed as a staged reading.
“He was so thrilled that a small town community was taking that leap that he gave us permission,” said Hughes. It’s been 23 years since the play was performed on Western’s stage.
The play describes living in New York City in the mid-’80s at the height of the AIDS/HIV crisis. While the play is set nearly 40 years ago, the themes are just as pertinent today, according to Hughes.
Roy Cohn serves as one of the main characters of the play.
Cohn was an American lawyer best known for being Senator Joseph McCarthy's chief counsel during the McCarthy hearings in the 1950s. The name is still circulated on major news networks as Cohn’s other famed role comes under scrutiny as Donald Trump’s longtime lawyer and mentor.
Just last year, Trump famously asked, "Where's my Roy Cohn?” — with hopes of finding another personal lawyer and fixer within his inner circle. Cohn was famously disbarred in New York just weeks before he died in 1986 of AIDS.
“Unfortunately this play is as relevant now as it was then,” said Hughes.
The play contains a multitude of characters, from Cohn to a young Republican law clerk and devout Mormon struggling with his sexuality and his wife, Harper, an agoraphobic Valium addict.
However, for Hughes, one of the greatest lessons to be learned is simply how to listen to one another, no matter how heavy the topic may be.
“I think all good theater asks us to do more listening than talking,” said Hughes.
There is never a shy moment in this production, which is electric in its intensity and at the same time incredibly heartfelt.
When one of the characters, Belize, speaks of the hardships of living in America, she holds nothing back:
“Well I hate America, Louis …” said Belize. “It’s just big ideas, and stories, and people dying, and people like you. The white cracker who wrote the National Anthem knew what he was doing. He set the word ‘free’ to a note so high nobody can reach it.”
The dialogue of the play is served in a way that incites conversation about what it means to be accepted, to be loved, to be OK, said Hughes.
“I don’t know if you can walk away without re-examining what you thought to be true and your own assumptions,” she added.
While it may be hard to hear someone out whose ideologies differ from your own, no matter how different our views may be, it’s an opportunity to learn.
“Assumptions are dangerous because we miss out on humanity when we do that,” said Hughes, who added that her goal for the show is “for people to come together in the theater and quietly listen to this story together no matter what their beliefs or assumptions once you walk in the door.”
(Kate Gienapp can be reached at 970.641.1414 or firstname.lastname@example.org)