“Angels in America,” the Tony Award-winning play, has been a focus of Claire Gleitman’s study since the show first appeared in 1991. Now the professor and chair of the English department at Ithaca College will get the chance to meet and talk with the author of the work that has been a large part of her career.
Gleitman will not be alone in welcoming Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tony Kushner to campus. Students and faculty campus and disciplines are preparing for Kushner’s upcoming visit by participating in Gleitman’s honors seminar — “Tony Kushner and ‘Angels in America’” — and putting on a reading of the play.
As this year’s Distinguished Speaker in the Humanities Lecture Series, an annual event that began in 2000, Kushner will be participating in a public interview conducted by Gleitman at 7:30 p.m. Monday in Ford Hall.
In addition to Kushner’s visit, Gleitman is directing a staged reading of the first part of the play, “Angels in America: Millennium Approaches,” on April 14. The production, which will feature theater arts department faculty and students, is another opportunity for the campus community to engage with the work.
“Angels in America” follows the intersecting stories of men and women dealing with issues like homosexuality, faith and reality in the mid 1980s.
Gleitman, who has taught the play multiple times, said she is eager to meet the author.
Gleitman said in her years teaching the text she has developed an intimate understanding of these characters and their narratives.
“I have taught the play pretty much every year since it first appeared,” Gleitman said. “I’ve seen it performed many times, and I’ve been involved in a couple of staged readings here at IC.”
In teaching the seminar, she said she has been able to revisit the text once again in order to prepare for Kushner’s visit.
“It’s always exciting to teach and to revisit ‘Angels in America,’ which I think is a rich, fascinating and really important contemporary American play,” Gleitman said.
Senior Nia Sciarretta said she enjoys studying the play from both literary and theatrical perspectives with Gleitman. She became interested in the class because of Kushner’s visit.
“When we’re looking at plays, and other literature as well, you always get the idea that, ‘Well, what did the author intend?’” she said. “It’s really exciting to actually be able to ask him what he meant by this.”
Distinguished speakers are chosen by a committee including chairs of departments within the school of humanities and sciences. Executive Associate Dean David Garcia said the committee’s focus is on finding people like Kushner, whose work is relevant for all humanities students.
“His work is very much about the preoccupations of American culture during this time and is suggestive of the way in which the study of the humanities might make the world a better place,” he said. “There’s something really powerful about that.”
Junior Max Lorn-Krause said he has read “Angels in America” more than once. Though he is not an honors student, he said he signed up for the one-credit course because getting the chance to see Kushner on campus and in class is an opportunity to meet a theater legend.
Both Lorn-Krause and Sciarretta found the sprawling production also includes an engaging story. “Angels in America” is a huge scale production, made up of two five-act plays that when viewed together during the recent Broadway revival, take about seven hours over two nights to see.
Lorn-Krause said the themes of Kushner’s plays are accessible.
“You read his plays and the themes that he tackles and deals with — religion, classes — as cheesy as it is, there’s something for everybody.”
Sciarretta said “Angels in America” is so moving because it combines the individual and universal.
“The characters in his plays are dealing with, sometimes very specific issues — the issue of AIDS, the issue of homosexuality — and some of them are kind of the huge, universal issues, like abandonment,” she said.
Gleitman said Kushner has asserted himself as a public intellectual by addressing some of the most important contemporary themes.
“He’s spoken out about very courageously and very eloquently about a range of issues that are not easy to talk about and probably not talked about enough in American culture,” she said.
Garcia said it is important for students to engage with guest speakers.
“It is an enriching and empowering experience, regardless of what it is that you think you’re going to do for your career,” he said.