Behind the Angels

CHARLIE REINHART-JONES // APRIL 27, 2018 

The Oberlin Theater Department tackled one of its biggest productions in its history by deciding to put on Tony Kushner’s acclaimed “Gay Fantasia on National Themes,” Angels in America. After seeing the production for myself, I was curious about the director behind it and how the production came to be. Not every college theater department would be willing to tackle a seven-hour long production about the AIDS epidemic, and Theater Department Professor Matthew Wright has been waiting for the right time to put on the production. When I asked him about the process of getting the production approved, he said, “there were a lot of coincidences that sort of took place all at once.” He knew that a production was going to be put on at the National Theatre in London, and later found out that the show was coming to Broadway in March.

“The play means a lot to me for a lot of different reasons,” he said. “It meant a lot to me when I saw it as an audience member when it first opened in New York, and then I played Prior Walter in both parts in 1997 and that was a very important experience in my life as an actor. And so I loved the play and I always thought that Oberlin would be the perfect place to do it.”

Wright went on to tell me that during the production selection process last Fall, he had been hoping to pitch the idea. He felt confident that the school would have enough eager participants to put on the production, which was a necessity because Wright had always known that he wanted to double cast the production. He wanted as many students to be involved as possible. Wright proposed the production to his colleagues, and for a while the future of the idea was unclear, as schoolwork for both students and faculty began to take over people’s time. Suddenly, Wright was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer, and everything was put on hold while Wright took a leave of absence to take care of surgery and chemotherapy. During Wright’s absence, the Theater department made its final decisions on what main stage productions it was going to put on, all while grappling with potential restrictions on space due to the construction going on nearby Hall and many of the other important Theater spaces. Despite all of the potential challenges, the department approved Angels in America as two of the three main stage productions for the Spring semester. The cast began preparing during Winter Term.

Before meeting with Wright, I had been particularly curious about how the installation outside of the theater came to be. The installation (pictured here), consists of two banners, one with the words “silence=death,” the other “AIDS is not over.” Silence=Death was the iconic terminology used on posters for ACT UP that caught national attention, while “AIDS is not over” aims to remind viewers of the production that the AIDS epidemic is ongoing; it still ravages communities domestically and around the world. In between the banners is a three-sided structure coated in pictures of victims of the AIDS epidemic.

The installation serves as a reminder that the subject matter of the production isn’t simply a relic of the past, but a testament to the ongoing relevance and direness of AIDS. Wright explained to me that the installation was created by the play’s dramaturges, Ryan Linskey and Alex Kohn, and that they were given the responsibility of researching the history and meaning of scenes and references in the play to share with the cast. Wright explained that he had delegated the task of creating a lobby display to the dramaturges, who then came up with the piece themselves. “I wanted something that had visual impact and was arresting in some way,” he said. They played around with a lot of ideas, but eventually came to the idea of banners. When he walked into Hall the day before opening night and saw the installation that the dramaturges had come up with, Wright thought “that’s it.”

Wright said that he truly felt like the whole team made a “gift for the community,” and concluded our talk by saying that he felt incredibly pleased because “everyone came and did their best work."

Contact contributing writer Charlie Rinehart-Jones at crinehar@oberlin.edu.

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