Angels in America opened in New York City on May 4, 1993. The show was still running on Broadway when our artistic director announced that we were the first regional theatre in the United States to obtain the rights from Tony Kushner to do his seven-hour, two-part play.
I was a twenty-nine year old, openly gay man at the time: very sexually active and still hanging on to my HIV-negative status. Even though I always practiced safe sex, I assumed I would eventually get HIV and die a horrible death. It was going to be my job to dress the iconic characters in Angels in America whose lives were affected by AIDS. The stakes felt very high.
I spent a great deal of time in the costume shop planning for this epic show. I would be responsible for creating one piece of theatrical trickery that made me flinch: the character, Prior Walter, needed Kaposi’s sarcoma (KS) lesions. I had done lots of make-up special effects before. But it was about to get very personal.
During pre-production, the time came for Thelma (the costume designer) and I to design the KS lesions. She stayed late backstage with me while I was dressing one of the final performances of Flying West. I felt hollow listening to the dialogue of Pearl Cleage’s newest play over the monitor while the two of us examined photocopies of men with Kaposi’s sarcoma.
“I like the size and shape of this lesion.”
“Yes, but the color of this one is a bit more striking.”
“Dennis, why don’t we borrow aspects of both pictures?”
The faces of the men with KS in the photocopies were blurred out. It didn’t matter to me. I knew them. Six degrees of separation: my friend Rick died of AIDS in 1988, so surely he was connected in some gay way to what I was seeing. Maybe Rick fucked a guy who fucked a guy in the pictures. Maybe I fucked one of the guys they fucked, too. Maybe it’s actually Rick in the picture: who could tell anymore?
How the fuck am I going to do this play?
There’s no way to learn how to do makeup other than to just start applying it to the skin. I hesitantly offered the inside of my own forearm to Thelma to practice. She and I took turns dipping the Q-Tips into the green, red, purple, and brown pots of makeup. An hour was spent painting KS lesions on my arm pretending to be matter-of-fact about it. We would troubleshoot each sample and do more lesions on my neck and face. It made me sick.
Selfish Faggot. You have friends who died of AIDS. You weren’t around when they died. You were out, living your life as they lost theirs.
Dirty Queer. Get used to how you look with lesions. You’re going to die of AIDS, too. You know you’re playing with fire every time you go to the park or the bathhouse.
AIDS Bait. Nobody’s going to clean up for you when you get sick. Just like Roy Cohn says in the play, you’re a weakling with zero clout.
Thelma continued to offer suggestions and critique the lesions. I finally had to disengage from the discussion about Kaposi’s sarcoma and listen to the four strong black women on the monitor speak their troubles in the other play, Flyin’ West. The characters were making smart choices against all odds in the late 19th century. I was a dumb homo whose only form of validation was all the anonymous sex I was having.
My death sentence.
“Dennis, take a look at the lesions from a distance in the mirror. What do you think?”
Thelma held a large mirror up from across the room. Angels in America only needs a few lesions on Prior Walter. But after an hour of practice, I was covered in them.
They looked real.
I felt faint.
Thelma had to finish the performance of Flyin’ West for me. I washed the makeup off and sobbed.
For twelve week (the summer I turned thirty years old) I worked on one of the first productions of Angels in America …in America. The world had never experienced a play like this. Tony Kushner’s story held nothing back.
“History is about to crack open,” said Ethel Rosenberg.
“Something’s going to give,” Harper Pitt would say.
Like it or not, I was on the front lines painting lesions, along with my more normal duties of laundry, quick changes, and leading a team of two other dressers. While doing my work, Kushner’s words seeped into me. This gay fantasia was far larger and more urgent than I could ever know. Through the course of the eighty-some performances, without even realizing it, I became infected with pride.
I briefly met Tony Kushner before our closing night performance of his play. I was introduced to him as “…the wardrobe master.” I guess I had mastered his play. An hour later, I was inspired. I decided to utilize a giant box of silver tinsel pipe cleaners stored in my office.
Everyone backstage working on Angels in America, gay or straight, ran the final performance wearing a silver pipe cleaner halo on their head. No one said a word when I handed halos out. The deck crew, the fly crew, the stage managers, the board ops, my dressers all just quietly slipped their pipe cleaner halo on like it was a badge of honor. The actors were in awe. Pride was contagious.
Twenty summers later: I’m still alive and healthy. I found myself sitting in a Thai restaurant having dinner with a few of my Angels alumni. We all had moved on and worked at other theatres around town. Thelma, the costume designer, was by my side sipping a Thai iced tea. She and I have worked together on a lot of plays since designing those Kaposi’s sarcoma lesions.
The five of us alumni were dining before the anniversary revival of Angels in America at the same theatre where we did it years before. We were special guests: the only original angels left in town. The director called our names out and had us stand up before they started the show.
Everybody wave to the old folks!
The two productions of Angels, twenty years apart, couldn’t have been more different in style and approach. The young director of the current one wouldn’t have even been in high school when we wore our pipe cleaner halos. He doesn’t have the first hand knowledge of what my generation went through.
And that’s okay.
I was glad to see the great work continues.
Dennis Milam Bensie is a writer and, for thirty years, has made his living as a dresser in professional theatre all over the United States. Short stories and poetry by Dennis have been featured in numerous publications and his essays have been seen in The Huffington Post, Boys on the Brink, and The Good Men Project. He has three books published by Coffeetown Press. This essay is part of a series for Queen Mob's Teahouse on his experience working backstage. Photo by Chris Bennion.