Angels in America

I’d like to tell you a story about hope. It might get kind of long, but if this isn’t your first time here, you probably already knew to expect that. But I like to think it’s a good one.

Twenty years ago, I went to college to be a teacher. I had known for a while that I wanted to be a teacher, but I did not know what kind of teacher I wanted to be. My high school principal at the time helped me make up my mind in the most expedient, practical, pragmatic way possible. She asked me, “Do you want to get a job?”

I mean… who DOESN’T answer that question with “yes”?

My choice, you see, was between becoming an Agricultural Education teacher or becoming an English teacher. These were my two passions as a teenager… one born of nurture, one born of nature. I was raised on a goat farm, and ag class (and thus FFA) seemed like such a perfect extension of my regular life experience. It gave me chances to develop as a leader and to travel and to experience a sense of belonging that I had not often felt before. Some of that was because I had a few really amazing ag teachers.

But English was something that came naturally to me. I was passionate about it even though I had no external, experiential connection to it. English was just there, inside of me, and it didn’t require fostering or deliberate developing or anything like that–it just grew on its own. Some of that was because I had a few really amazing English teachers.

At the time (and still, honestly), that principal was right. Oftentimes, ag teachers get jobs like humans make carbon dioxide–without even trying. English teachers… well, there are a lot of us out there. I’ve never sat on a hiring team for an English job in Des Moines where we were short on qualified applicants.

So I took that advice and I went to Iowa State University fully intending to become an ag teacher.

Then I got to school, and I started failing.



Yes, I was irresponsible and testing my limits in a world where my parents didn’t get to decide how I spent my time. Some people get that figured out right away, but I was pretty dense. I failed every course in my first semester and still didn’t get my act together.

I didn’t care. The classes didn’t speak to me, they spoke at me. Lecture halls with hundreds of students in them learning about the basics of animal science didn’t get me out of bed in the morning. Labs in the agronomy building where we looked at the endless permutations of dirt didn’t set my heart a flutter. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t make sense out of what was going wrong.

It was probably my first scary experience with depression. I just didn’t know how to get out of it.

After that first cataclysmic semester, my mother told me I had to get a job. I did so… by working at food service in my dorm complex. I started to like myself a little… and I started to make friends. In fact, I started cutting class in order to work shifts–more for the chance to talk to people than for the money.

When I did go to class, I didn’t talk to anyone. I didn’t feel like I could. Everyone there seemed invested, committed, focused… and I was just some strange imposter who wandered in the door.

I continued to fail. I was placed on what is called Temporary Enrollment, which basically means, if you fail again, you are going to get thrown out of school.

I went home for that first summer and just completely, totally, fell apart. My support systems–work and the friends I had made through the New Warriors Crash Pad mailing list–were inaccessible to me. This was before I had a cell phone. This was when downloading a day’s worth of e-mails took more than an hour via our shitty dial-up internet at the farm.

So I retreated to old friendships–all of the people that mattered to me that were still around home. Many of my friends were a year younger than me, so I went around doing the graduation party circuit and relishing in their delight at being ready to move on to the next stage of their lives… all the while confident that I was incapable of making that same transition myself.

When I went back to school, I resolved to do better. To try harder. I started dating someone, and as ill-advised as that relationship ended up being, he did at least motivate me to go to class and do my damn homework. He did these things in a nagging, parenting sort of way, which is one of a hundred reasons that we broke up, but… in that moment in time, I may have needed that.

That spring–still barely holding on, but now in possession of a bunch of Ds on my transcript instead of a unanimous crowd of Fs–I took a class for fun. I hadn’t done that before–I had been taking classes based solely on how quickly they moved me towards my graduation goal. But I took a survey of English lit class just because I wanted to do something that wasn’t ag or science.

We read some short stories for the first couple of weeks, and then we talked about them in class, and I realized I COULD talk to people in this class. I WANTED to. I wanted to talk to them not just in class, but outside of class. I love that feeling, and I hadn’t even realized that I was missing it until that moment when it came back into my life.

Then we geared up to read something new. The professor, a kind, brilliant woman closer to my grandmother’s age than my mother’s, directed us to pick up a copy of a play.

I thought–Oh! A play! I was in drama in high school! I haven’t read a play in ages! Fun!

The play was Angels in America by Tony Kushner. A Pulitzer Prize-winning play billed as a “Gay Fantasia on American Themes.”


That play changed my life. That isn’t hyperbole… it is the 100% unvarnished truth. As I read the struggles of Joe (I love Joe, even though I know it is not cool to do so) and Prior (everyone loves Prior) and Louis and Harper and Hannah and Roy and Belize and the Angel (oh, the Angel)… I WOKE UP.

Why was I putting myself through this hell? Why was I doing something, day in and day out, that I didn’t love? I had mountains of evidence that I was no longer in love with agriculture… but I was ignoring it. I was fixed in the course of my life that I had laid for myself. I was doing everything necessary to live my life correctly…

Which is Joe’s story, you know. Anyway.

By the time we finished reading that play, I had found myself. I found the courage to change my major–which was as much about telling my parents as it was about filling out paperwork, and that was scary because I was so sure I was letting them down.

I started living a life I could love instead of one that I thought I was supposed to.

Now mind you–I blame NO ONE for those two years of struggle and failure. I am who I am because of those two years. I picked that major. Yes, choosing an ag major made life easier in a bunch of ways at the time… but I made that choice. So changing to English wasn’t about vanquishing a foe… it was about renouncing the destiny I thought had been laid upon me and instead embracing the one I would make for myself.

Which is Prior’s story, you know. Anyway.

An interesting aside…

Angels was written by Tony Kushner, as I said before. But he has written more than just Angels. He also wrote a short play called Reverse Transcription that appeared in several anthologies. One of those anthologies was purchased by a dear friend of mine from the Iowa State University book store when we visited it as part of our Adventures in Supercomputing team my senior year in high school. We read that play aloud together, my team and I, and it enraptured me.

So maybe the universe was sending signs to me that I wasn’t yet ready to receive. It said, “Jeremy–keep going on this road. Follow this trail and you’ll find yourself.”

And I decided that it was more important to “get a job.”


New Jeremy, English Major Jeremy, went on to start getting good grades, going to class, and meeting/dating the love of his life. My life was transformed utterly by the decision to change majors, and that decision was born in the pages of Angels in America. Without it, I wouldn’t have my career in Des Moines. I wouldn’t have my husband. I wouldn’t have my side-life as a novelist. I wouldn’t have anything–or what I did have would be so unrecognizable to me that I can’t imagine it.

In 2003, HBO produced a mini-series adaptation of the play. I didn’t have HBO, so I begged a friend from work to videotape it for me.

That mini-series was the first time I ever saw the play come to life. I had kept an eye out for the chance to see it performed in the intervening years, but no such opportunities presented themselves anywhere around me (or within my means at the time). So the movie would have to do… and it was great! Meryl Streep! Al Pacino! Mary-Louise Parker! Jeffrey Wright! And more, of course. But I clung to that thing… even though it didn’t stir the same magic in me that my original reading of the play had conjured.

I thought, at the time, that perhaps Angels in America had done its work. It had already transformed my life, and now it was no longer special to me–it was time for it to move on and be special to someone else. That’s life.

So I didn’t think much about the play for a long, long while. We moved into our house in 2009, and I remember holding the slip-cased edition of both halves of the play on my lap as I sorted bookshelves. I almost pulled it out and read it again… but life kept moving, and I put it away.

Last year, I read about the National Theatre’s production of Angels in America–a new staging, directed by acclaimed director Marianne Elliot, starring Nathan Lane, Andrew Garfield, and Russell Tovey.

I’ll be honest–I would have probably not paid it much heed, except I’m in love with Russell Tovey.

Now, flying to London to see a play (and an 8 hour-long play at that) wasn’t really in the cards for me. So I let it flutter into the back of my brain along with all of the other cobwebs.

Then, one day, Tom pointed out to me that the movie theater in Ames was going to be broadcasting the play from London for a special engagement. One Thursday in July of 2017, I could see the first half of the play… then I could see the second half on the next Thursday.

Tom eyed this whole thing skeptically–that’s 8 hours (480 minutes!) of play, and he’s the sort of person that gets restless at the 91st minute of a movie. So I asked another friend, the inestimable Kim, to go with me… and she agreed.

The feeling of being in that theater and seeing the play performed in front of us–even though it was on a screen–was electric. It was magical in every way, and it brought me back to that moment of revelation and transformation I had experienced back in the spring of 2000 as though it were yesterday.

After the second night, as we drove home, we cried and talked and cried and talked… full of happiness.

My life was complete in this regard, and Angels had given me its magic again. It would sustain me for another 17 years.

It was not long after that that news broke that the production would be traveling to Broadway for a limited engagement. The same cast… except Russell Tovey was out and Lee Pace would take his place.

Kim and I promised each other we would find a way to go and see it in person.

Then the time came… and it was too hard to get away. Too expensive. A bad time for both of us. You know… the things that always stop us from living our dreams.

When the Tony Awards aired on June 10th of this year, Angels in America won several. And one commercial made note that the play was ending on July 15th. I looked over at Tom, and he looked at me, and I don’t remember who said it, but we agreed that we would go to New York. That he would weather his reluctance for me and we would see this 8 hour masterpiece LIVE, IN PERSON before it was gone. Kim couldn’t join us, which is a horrible shame… but we decided to go.

Time flew by… and before we knew it, we were looking at this:


We saw Part 1 on Thursday night, July 12th.

We saw Part 2 on Friday night, July 13th.

We sat in the first row of the mezanine, because I am not now, or ever will be, rich enough to sit on the orchestra level on Broadway for a show of this magnitude. In truth–these seats were sublime. See for yourself:


Again, my heart was stuffed full of the magic of this magnificent piece. It was everything I wanted and so much more. It was funny and touching and powerful and TRUE and it approaches its subjects and themes with clarity that I envy and fear. It will always be one of my most cherished memories… a touchstone of who I am.

And Tom was with me, which makes it all the better. Here we are before the curtain went up on night 2, after dinner at our favorite place in the city:


So… what does this all mean?

Angels in America was originally performed as a complete work in 1993.

Twenty-five years later, its power is greater, not less. Its vision more prescient, more piercing. Its heart more vast and more savage.

I have written a lot about my heart this year on this blog. About the things that make it feel full.

Angels in America makes it ache in its fullness. It makes my life bigger and better and nobler because of its words and its breath of air coursing through my blood.

Its moment in the sun has passed us once more.

But I know one thing for absolute certain…

It will be back.

And when it comes back… it will bring its magic into my world again. And if the universe puts you in a place and a time where you can experience it for yourself, I beg you…

Do so.

There are Angels in America, but they do not descend from on high. They ascend from right here and right now… they are born of hope and love and the living of life.

When times feel darkest, we make the light by living and loving.


About jlschwennen

A teacher, a writer, a voracious reader, a player and lover of games, and sometimes, if you are really lucky, an interesting conversationalist.
This entry was posted in Lifestyle, The Seven Great Loves of my Life. Bookmark the permalink.

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