Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 11 / 15 March 2018

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The World Only Spins Forward: The Ascent of Angels of America by Isaac Butler and Dan Kois; Bloomsbury USA, $30

A dream by Tony Award-winning playwright and screenwriter Tony Kushner opens this beautiful literary homage to his theatrical sensation. In it, an angel breaks through the ceiling of a room where a beautiful dancer lay dying of AIDS. From that image, Kushner wrote a long poem, then developed it into what is now universally known as "Angels in America." Kushner's beautiful dancer may be long gone, but the play inspired by him has enjoyed immense success, garnering its creator, now 61, a Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1993, and has endured through decades of ever-morphing gay culture evolution.

For devoted fans and those curious about the production's evolution over time, theater director Isaac Butler and Slate writer Dan Kois have cogently produced a chronologically arranged oral history dedicated to the years leading up to the play's historic production ("It's gonna have five gay men and an angel," pitched Kushner at the play's inception) and the years following its ascent into Broadway stardom and beyond.

The book isn't just a typical narrative charting the rise of "Angels of America." Its true heart is found in the perspectives and opinions of hundreds of people associated with the play, via interviews conducted by the authors from 2016-17. Beginning with the years 1978-90, a "bad time" according to gay former Massachusetts Congressman Barney Frank, when "the Reagan revolution" reared its ugly head, all the way to the current year, the book is narrated by a diverse chorus of voices. That diversity results in illuminating, often emotionally moving recollections that range from cast animosity and competition to the internal melodrama of the stage, the play's enduring relevance, and the grim awareness of death as the plague diminished our numbers in droves. This sadness manifests itself in entries like NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt founder Cleve Jones's commentary on the gay body count lost to AIDS between 1985-95, which, in San Francisco alone, amounted to "about two thousand a year."

The resounding voices of actors, authors, playwrights, critics, scholars, and many more echo throughout this impressive historical retrospective, and join forces with photographs demarcating each era. Backstories merge with memories and opinions as "Angels" was met with outstanding successes in its Broadway debut in 1993 and on to a London tour, an HBO series, and an opera, among other incarnations. "Interlude" sections offer even closer perspectives from the major characters on how they honed their roles and brought different aspects of their stage careers into the theatrical melting pot that became "Angels in America."

A closing chapter featuring quotations on what the play has truly meant to each respondent is a fitting coda to a book that belongs on the shelves of gay theatre fans and anyone interested in reliving a pivotal piece of gay history.

Here and now in the Bay Area, Berkeley Rep will present "Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes" beginning in April and running through late July at the 600-seat proscenium Roda Theatre. The production will be directed by Tony Taccone and feature actor Caldwell Tidicue (alternately known as Bob the Drag Queen, winner of Season 8 of "RuPaul's Drag Race"). Tickets are available at

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