(l to r) James McArdle and Nathan Stewart-Jarrett in ‘Angels in America: Millennium Approaches.’ (Photo: Brinkhoff/Mögenburg)
By Matthew Wexler
Angels in America, Tony Kushner’s “gay fantasia on national themes” returns to Broadway in The National Theatre’s stellar new production. The Tony Award-winning play is a seven-and-a-half-hour theatrical marathon, with many of the show’s cast members jumping the pond to reprise their roles on Broadway. Nathan Stewart-Jerrett is one of them, portraying Belize, a tough-talking former drag queen who is now a nurse in the height of the AIDS crisis.
The Broadway Blog chatted with Nathan by phone prior to the show’s opening to discuss its historical impact and the resilience required to perform Kushner’s seminal work.
Angels in America is subtitled by its author Tony Kushner as “a Gay Fantasia on National Themes.” That’s a hefty undertaking. How would you describe it for audiences unfamiliar with the two-part play?
NSJ: I wouldn’t undo what Tony has subtitled the play, but what I can say is that it’s obviously a very American piece but [its ideas] extend to what is happening internationally.
This production marks the play’s 25th anniversary since it opened on Broadway. In what ways do you see it relevant for today’s audiences?
NSJ: What’s amazing and also really sad is that it’s still relevant. If you look at the gay community there’s a sense of history there. A mutual friend came to see the show—a 22-year-old—and he had never really seen gay characters on stage before, so it’s incredibly relevant to have different kinds of people on stage.
Look at who is in office in America right now and what people are trying to do in terms of cracking down on immigration in Europe. It’s a potent time and there are huge dividing planes. In a way, the play transcends and discusses them.
You portray (among others) Belize, a former drag queen and nurse who administers tough love as well as more traditional medicine. How did director Marianne Elliott help you discover what makes Belize tick?
NSJ: I was aware of play a long time ago and we came to it from different points. She softened my view, I think, and rounded a few of Belize’s hard edges. I wasn’t around as an adult in the 1980s but I’ve thought a great deal about how strong someone had to be in New York City during that time. What qualities might he possess to survive this?
Played in repertory and nearly eight hours long in total, Angels in America is a marathon for the acting company. What do you do to mentally and physically prepare to take on these roles, often performing both parts in one day?
NSJ: Mentally, I often use music to get me into that world. I go to the Top 40 of that period. Music emotionally engages me but it differs day to day and I can’t always use the same song, so it depends on how I’m feeling and I hope that’s enough! We have a high bar to hit and honor.
This production received raves at the National Theatre in London. Are you noticing a difference in how American audiences respond to the play?
NSJ: Firstly, there’s a Broadway tradition I wasn’t privy to. Audiences applaud at the first scene. It’s really strange—they clap a lot and applaud after the end of certain scenes. The biggest difference, though, is the reference. We have people in the audience from New York City or who or survived the AIDS crisis of the 80s or from Salt Lake City and can identify with the Mormon perspective. We’re playing on home turf and audiences automatically respond to what they see.
Playwright Tony Kushner writes of Part II: Perestroika: “The problems the characters face are finally among the hardest problems—how to let go of the past, how to change and lose with grace, how to keep going in the face of overwhelming suffering. It shouldn’t be easy.” Thoughts?
NSJ: Each character comes into a scene, not quite knowing what he or she wants, then being faced with someone else who is facing the same thing. It’s about letting go and survival. Belize is facing his best friend’s illness and the fact that he’s losing his mind, and he also has to deal with Roy Cohn, a man he hates. It moves fast and the second play is not easy to perform. Each scene has a cost. The ideas we’re battling are bigger than personal grief and bigger than our emotions. And when we’re on that, it really flies. It’s frightening to perform, but thrilling.
Angels in America
Neil Simon Theatre
250 West 52nd Street
Matthew Wexler is The Broadway Blog’s editor. Read more of his work at wexlerwrites.com.