Building Character for 'Angels in America'

CORRECTION APPENDED

A little more “fabulous.” A little less “fabulous.” During his first rehearsals, Jonah C. Priour ’09 kept dialing it up and down. He worked on his vocal intonation. He practiced crossing his legs.

It’s not easy to play a self-described “stereotypical” gay men—not if you’re a straight guy from Ingram, Texas, a town so conservative that a high school production of “Les Miserables” caused a minor scandal.

His parents were “very supportive” when he got the role, Priour said. “I think we just sort of laughed about it, you know, my mom would say, ‘Well, don’t get too in character.’”

But the role was still daunting. Priour’s character is a part-time “club designer” from New York City, a gay man who glories in his own flamboyance. And Priour isn’t just playing any gay character—he’s playing one of the leads of “Angels in America,” Tony Kushner’s groundbreaking, quintessential play about being gay in America.

“I didn’t want to come off as a stereotype,” Priour said. “The minute that happens, the whole essence of the play, the whole reason it was written just goes out the window.”

“Angels in America” is full of challenges for actors. It’s a two-part, six hour epic about four gay men in New York during the 1980s AIDS epidemic. But it’s also about democratic theory, celestial orgasms, the ozone layer.

But the stakes are high. When college students stage a show as ambitious as “Angels,” failure is a real possibility. So is disappointing the members of the gay community for whom “Angels” is not just a play but a testimony to an incredibly painful era. “It’s so important that our actors—gay and straight alike—it’s very important that they’re not playing gay,” said Laura C. Hirschberg ’09, the director of the first part of “Angels,” “Millennium Approaches.” [SEE CORRECTION APPENDED]

Three of the four central characters are being played by straight actors. All four male leads said they put a lot of thought into what it meant to play a gay man in a play about gay identity. For all of them, the goal was to make their character seem real. Not a gay guy—just a guy.

A guy who could have onstage chemistry with other men. Getting there, especially at first, wasn’t easy.

Alex R. Breaux ’09 spent four years at Harvard as a varsity football player. “I’m like the skinniest kid on the football team, but then I walk into the theater, and I’m like, the strongest person people have ever seen,” he joked. “I think people think I’m some incredible hulk because I can like lift two chairs at once.”

Breaux transitioned quickly into the Harvard theater scene, and has been cast in increasingly prominent roles.

Playing Joe Pitt—a closeted Republican Mormon lawyer—was an incredible opportunity as an actor, but it was tough for Breaux, who’s used to being a funny guy. Joe Pitt isn’t a comic role. He spends much of the play in states of anxiety or desperation. And then he falls in love with another man.

Raised by liberal parents in the Bay Area, Breaus said he knew he wasn’t homophobic. But having to kiss a guy challenged his self-conception in ways he didn’t expect. “I would have a visceral reaction where it just didn’t feel good,” he said.

Benjamin K. Glaser ’09 had it easier. “Roy Cohn is not a homosexual,” he quoted with a grin. “Roy Cohn is a heterosexual man who fucks around with guys.”

But Breaux’s Joe Pitt has to fall for another man both physically and emotionally. It’s a role that demands onstage chemistry. Like Priour, Breaux had to learn how to flirt with a man onstage, how to make his body language believable.

Both of their characters are in love with Louis Ironson, played by Gus T. Hickey ’11.

“I knew coming into this that I was going to be playing a gay person onstage and oh, great, I’m the only actually gay person who will be playing a gay person on stage,” Hickey said.

But he was also wary of becoming a stereotype. “I didn’t want to be, you know, that man is clearly gay,” he said.

He and Priour have known each other for a long time, which made it easier for them to play lovers onstage.

Working with Breaux was very different. The breakthrough in their onstage relationship didn’t come until a fight scene went painfully wrong. Hickey accidentally head-butted Breaux in the nose.

“His nose started bleeding,” Hickey said. “He was like football player crying, where there’s like tears but no sound.”

“That’s when I realized… I can beat up someone who is six inchers taller than me and about 100 lbs. heavier.”

“Everyone in the cast couldn’t believe that little old Gus had like slain the giant,” Breaux said.

“It was our moment of bonding,” Hickey said.

Both Breaux and Priour said the awareness of playing a gay character soon faded into the larger challenges of their roles. Priour had to wrestle with the emotional weight of playing a man with AIDS who’s been deserted by his lover. Breaux had to negotiate a deeply flawed relationship with the wife his character deserts.

What began as a stretch started to feel natural. “Love is love,” Hirschberg said.

—Staff writer Lois E. Beckett can be reached at lbeckett@fas.harvard.edu.

CORRECTION

The April 10 arts article "Building Character for 'Angels in America'" incorrectly stated that Laura C. Hirschberg ’09 was the director of the first part of “Angels in America,” “Millennium Approaches.” In fact, Hirschberg directed "Perestroika," the second part of "Angels in America."