The Story Behind the Story That “Shook Up the State”
The sound of the crash filled Ball Theater.
The lights coming from the stage were blinding—yet the audience couldn’t look away.
Prior tumbled off his bed.
There she was.
“Greetings, prophet,” the angel said. “The great work begins. The messenger has arrived.”
The audience was on the edge of their seats—captivated, breathless.
Opening night of Wabash College’s production of Angels in America in 1996 was officially over.
“It was that kind of classic silent moment in the theater and then just an eruption,” Professor of Theater Michael Abbott ’85 remembers. “The play was very good, but also, everyone in that room knew what was at stake.”
The play’s director, Professor of Theater Jim Fisher, was standing in the back of the theater.
“That first night, the audience gave the play a standing ovation,” he says. “I think everything gets a standing ovation now. That was not true in those days.”
And there certainly was no indication that it was going to be true that night either.
“Everyone in that room knew there were threats, rumors—oh, the rumors of death threats,” Abbott says.
Two plain-clothes security officers were on hand before and during the show. Stapled onto the programs that evening were warnings that planned demonstrations might occur during the performance and reminders that the Gentleman’s Rule was in effect.
For Fisher, the end of opening night also marked the end of a long, uphill battle he never expected he’d have to climb.
Angels in America is a two-part play written by Tony Kushner that deals with the AIDS epidemic and homosexuality in America in the 1980s. It won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, the Tony Award for Best Play, and the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Play.
And Fisher had the nerve to ask for the rights to perform it.
“When I read the play the first time, it destroyed me. I thought, God, I would love to direct this play. But it’s too much for us. We couldn’t pull this off.”
What he knew he could pull off was getting the playwright, Kushner, to speak at Wabash.
“For a while, I thought that was going to be it,” Fisher says. “That would have to satisfy me. But then, while we were waiting for Tony’s visit, I found my courage.”
Fisher called the agent, who informed him that college and university rights were expected to be released within the next couple of weeks.
“Tony didn’t even know they had released the university rights until I told him we were doing it!”
The night of Kushner’s visit in October 1995, Fisher announced that Wabash would be performing part one of the play—Angels in America: Millennium Approaches—and Wabash would be one of the first colleges to do so.
“That was like firing a gun,” Fisher remembers. “Everybody started going off in various ways, and kind of unexpectedly. I had been at Wabash 16 or 17 years at that point, and we had never had a situation where people were saying we shouldn’t do a production. I wasn’t ready for it.”
For the next year, Fisher would come out of class, and Marge Jackson, the department secretary, would be standing by the door with phone messages for him.
“It was painful,” says Abbott, who was in his second year of teaching at the College. “It was deeply disturbing, and what would end up being a triumph and, in some ways our greatest moment, in some ways was a catastrophe.
“When push came to shove, I think it became clear to all of us that some in the administration at that time and, in particular, some very vocal trustees, were very unhappy that we were staging the production. The College wasn’t going to shut it down, but it seemed as though it desperately wanted to. And I don’t think Jim was naïve and thought, Oh, the College is going to love it! The trustees are going to be thrilled! But what we saw unfold was a response that seemed extremely defensive and extremely contradictory to the principles we set forth as a College.”
The play was a frequent topic of discussion in The Bachelor and the conservative journal The Commentary.
“Everybody had their own axe to grind, and it took on a life of its own,” Fisher remembers. “You had no control over anything that was happening—it was just happening.
“The play has strong language and adult situations, but we’d done that a zillion times up to that point. It was just that it was the meeting of a moment—a moment politically on campus and in the country.”
“It was just a nightmare.” Abbott pauses. He takes off his glasses as his memories become tears.
“Angels in America became the document for human rights in the gay community,” Abbott says. “I lived in New York in mid- to late ’80s, and I watched so many people in the theater die. If you were in the theater, you just lost people. There was no cure, no hope. If you got it, you were dead. When I came to Wabash, I carried those experiences with me, and I felt like it was Wabash’s chance, in little old Crawfordsville, Indiana, to rise up and respond to that horrible nightmare. Our failure to do it in the right way was just deeply wounding to me.”
“Just how controversial it was to do that play at an all-male school in the middle of Indiana—I know that now, but I didn’t get it back then,” says Mathew Boudreaux ’98, who played Louis. “I knew that some people wouldn’t like it, but, then again, some people didn’t like me.”
Boudreaux came out as gay when he was in high school in Texas, but when he came to Wabash, he says he went back into the closet.
“I was petrified. I came to Wabash without ever having visited, but I had gotten a full-ride. I showed up for the first time and thought, Oh wow. This is different.”
Then he auditioned for Angels in America.
“Growing up, even though I knew I was different, the messages I got were that gay people were gross. HIV/AIDS was gross. I grew up thinking San Francisco was hell on earth. Those were the messages I absorbed as a young, confused, gay man growing up with no support.
“Angels in America and that experience was the first time I fully felt supported. That there was nothing wrong with me. There was so much love for me that it allowed me to shed all of that intolerance I had grown up with.”
Boudreaux played opposite Trevor Fanning ’00—who had just transferred that semester from New Orleans—and his character, Prior.
“During the auditions, you could just tell that certain people were meant for certain roles,” Fanning says. “We all read scenes together, and there was a feeling in the air that this was the right combination. And because every scene is so intimate, we really became a small family.”
“Sometimes you get lucky as a director,” Fisher says. “They really moved into professional status, not only in understanding their characters but their deliveries—the way they behaved around the production and how much they cared about it. Good college casts do that to a certain extent, but it was really extraordinary in this case.”
The task that Fisher handed to them was, indeed, extraordinary. Part One of Angels in America is three and a half hours long. Its topics are heartbreaking and heavy— personal and poignant. The stories it told… weren’t stories that were told.
They had four weeks to rehearse.
“And it opened Homecoming Week.” Fanning laughs. “I was a pledge in my fraternity, so there was that. I just remember being completely spent afterward.”
“I think Wabash is the kind of place where you say, ‘The mountain is this high, and we’re going to climb it,’ and the guys are like, ‘Okay,’” Abbott says with a laugh. “They don’t even know any better. It’s just, ‘Okay.’ And they do it.”
Lighting designer Marcus Doshi ’97 had four days to light the show—and it was his senior capstone project.
“I don’t remember rehearsals very well because I remember not sleeping,” he says. “I had just wanted to work with Jim, who referred to me as ‘Grasshopper’ [from the TV series Kung Fu) during the show. I really pushed that theater to the edge in terms of what could be accomplished.”
Perhaps it was because of that workload, but neither Fanning nor Boudreaux remembers much of the controversy that surrounded the production.
“I remember just being immersed in the work,” Boudreaux says. “We were all in this bubble. I was too focused on the play and doing a good job!”
Doshi remembers some of it—and he loved it.
“The Commentary published stuff, and there were talks of protests. I kind of thought it was great! When you do a show that actually causes controversy, it proves you are making people think, and that’s great. Being able to be a part of something that was pushing boundaries was exciting for me. That’s what it means to be an artist.”
However, once opening night approached, the entire cast was well aware of the effects of the controversy.
“If there wasn’t all that hubbub, it might’ve gone unnoticed,” Fanning says. “But because there was, it was sold out every night!”
“None of us knew how it was going to be received,” Boudreaux says. “It was very validating. We were doing the right thing. It was bigger than us and it was bigger than the school at that point.”
Validation came from the standing ovation they received every night, the reviews they received in local newspapers and the Indianapolis Star, and the praise from Lawrence Biemiller of the Chronicle of Higher Education, who wrote: “It did not disappoint, even—and this is not said lightly—in comparison with the Broadway production. It was stunning.”
“Everybody brought their A-game, so it was electric in the room,” Doshi says. “Bryan Thomas, the actor who played Roy Cohn, was just fabulous—just that energy. It was just a great group of people. Teri Clark, who played Harper, and Heikki Larson. Just fabulous.”
“They were sort of minor celebrities on campus for a couple days afterward.” Fisher laughs. “When I talked to Tony Kushner about everything going on, he said to me, ‘You know what’s going to happen, don’t you? Everybody’s going to scream and holler and carry on until the first performance, and then a lot of people will come and see it. You probably will break your box office records.’
“Which we did. At the beginning of the performance, you could feel the tension in the audience. But once people started watching it, I think they forgot to be upset.”
On the morning of opening night, Fisher watched his daughter, reading an editorial in the local paper about him and the production, burst into tears at the words written about him.
“I thought, What the hell am I doing this for? I wasn’t sure it was going to be worth it.”
He knows now. Not because he stuck it to the critics. Not because he proved a point. But because, 23 years later, of what Angels in America meant to his cast.
“That play—that was the beginning of me realizing it was okay to be honest with myself and who I really was,” says Boudreaux, who now works in pharmaceuticals as an HIV Therapeutic Specialist at Gilead Sciences. “It made me feel seen. It allowed me to feel like my voice was important and part of the dialogue.”
“It changed me because it allowed me to be the type of person who went out there and took risks,” says Fanning, who is director of choirs at Holton-Arms School in Bethesda, Maryland. “I’m a different person now because of that experience—the way I think, the way I act, the way I dream, the way I imagine life can be.”
“I have a husband now,” Boudreaux adds. “And a daughter! Twenty-three years ago, I never thought that would be possible. But after Angels in America, I realized I needed to shape my own reality instead of depending on what was behind me. It made me who I am.”
Abbott believes we have come a long way since that time—as a country and even the College as a whole.
It’s something Doshi sees too.
“Doing Angels pushed Wabash across a threshold in terms of knowing more ways in which people lived their lives and being more accepting of that,” Doshi says. “I think so. I hope so.”
Whenever Angels pops into Abbott’s mind these days, it’s not about the controversy. It’s the challenge.
“Angels reminded us of what we’re able to do. My work after that has been informed by the idea that, Oh my God, If we can do that, we can do a lot of things.
“For a number of years, we were the department that did Angels. We wore that on our sleeves, and I think it established a culture here of defiance. That ‘Little Giant’ moniker really does fit us.
“I’ll never forget how hard it was, but what it meant to Trevor? What it meant to Mat? Hopefully we are still providing those similar life-changing experiences. We have to. That’s what we do.”