UNCG Campus Weekly

Campus Weekly is published each Wednesday when classes are in session. In the summer, it is published biweekly.

‘Angels in America,’ playwright Tony Kushner and scholar Jim Fisher

Jim Fisher, professor of theater and a UNCG alumnus, has an expansive view of American theater. This past fall, he published a second, much-expanded edition of a book he co-authored with Felicia Hardison Londré called “The Historical Dictionary of American Theater: Modernism” (Rowman & Littlefield).

He is also one of the foremost experts on the works of Tony Kushner.

Kushner’s Pulitzer- and Tony-winning “Angels in America,” in its 25th anniversary year, is being revived on Broadway. It opens this week, and is getting lots of media attention. Campus Weekly asked Fisher about the play, at this milestone moment:

Tell us a bit about this production. This new Broadway production, as you probably know, is based on an English revival of the plays last year. That production, starring Nathan Lane and Andrew Garfield (who are both in the Broadway production), was broadcast live in movie theaters here, and I saw it last summer.

What is significance of the 25th anniversary of “Angels in America,” in your judgement? This new production is a reminder that “Angels in America” is a major American play, belonging in the same league as Eugene O’Neill’s “Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” Tennessee Williams’s “A Streetcar Named Desire,” Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town,” Lorraine Hansberry’s “A Raisin in the Sun” and August Wilson’s “Fences.” In short, it is a quintessential American play, dealing with the nation’s history since World War II and, more importantly, moral, religious, political and sexual issues that have dominated the national conversation since the early 1980s. Aesthetically speaking, the plays are a unique merging of the epic theater style of Bertolt Brecht, mixed with the lyric realism of Tennessee Williams and the blunt force political realism of Arthur Miller.  

This production is actually its second major Broadway revival since its original premiere in 1992. The play was revived in New York by the Signature Theatre Company in 2014, as part of a season devoted exclusively to Kushner’s work.

When it first was produced, what was your reaction? Frankly, I was bowled over by the play when I read it sometime in late 1992/early 1993, when it was newly in print. As a theater director, I was immediately attracted to the idea of directing it, but its size, scope and emotional demands seemed too great. But upon reflection, I decided to move to do a production as soon as it was possible. I arranged for a visit to campus at Wabash College, where I was teaching then, in 1995, and we developed a friendship that has continued since then. The following year, in 1996, I directed the play at Wabash, where it met with some controversy over its themes, but also attracted considerable positive attention and led me to write a book about not only “Angels,” but all of Kushner’s work up to that time, which was published in 2001.

Any updates in recent years, of your work about or with Tony Kushner? I directed “Angels” again here in 2009 and Kushner and I did the first of our on-stage Q&As here (at UNCG’s Taylor Theatre in 2010) around that time (see p. 4 of this Campus Weekly pdf). We’ve since done it several times, including, most recently, at the Comparative Drama Conference in Baltimore a year or so ago. Since my first encounter with Kushner, I have been frequently asked to either talk about or write about him, and I have had the opportunity of directing his free adaptation of Pierre Corneille’s 17th century play, “The Illusion, in 2004, and, most recently, a production here of his musical drama, “Caroline, or Change,” in Taylor Theatre in late 2016. The exciting news for me is that the publisher of my 2001 Kushner book (Routledge) has asked me to do an expanded/updated second edition, which I am about to begin working on, hopefully for publication in 2021, the 20th anniversary of the original book.

Anything else you’d like to add? Only that my work on Kushner’s plays, both as a director and a writer, has been a remarkable and challenging privilege, and I’m happy that after more than 25 years, I am still engaged with his work. And that I have had the opportunity to know him has also been a privilege ‒ he’s an extraordinary artist.

By Mike Harris

Photo of Fisher and Kushner (l-r) taken in Baltimore at the Comparative Drama Conference, when they did an on-stage Q&A as the keynote event of the conference.