03/01/2012 11:24 am ET Updated May 01, 2012

Why Angels in America Still Matters Today

When Tony Kushner's Angels in America returns to Chicago this April, it will be a milestone in a shared history spanning nearly two decades.

The AIDS epidemic was about 13 years old when the national tour of Angels launched at the Royal George Theatre in 1994. Kushner's groundbreaking play was set in 1985, featuring characters struggling with and dying from AIDS amid the callous social politics of the Reagan administration.

When the play returns to Chicago this spring, it will resonate once again. There has been considerable progress in the 30-year fight against AIDS, said David Ernesto Munar, president/CEO of the AIDS Foundation of Chicago (AFC). But persistent stigma and political challenges continue to hamper efforts to end the epidemic.

In partnership with AFC, the Court Theatre will stage both parts of the play, "Millenium Approaches" and "Perestroika," with preview performances beginning on March 30. Proceeds from the April 14 opener will benefit AFC, which is also hosting Kushner as the guest of honor at its March 27 fundraising dinner.

When Angels first came to town in 1994, there were about 8,000 people living with HIV in Chicago. Today, there are estimated to be more than 25,000, a projection that includes estimated number of people who are infected but don't know it, according to the Chicago Department of Public Health.

Back then, AFC was a 12-person operation in a loft on North Halsted Street. Its work was focused in the same areas -- policy, advocacy, care, housing and prevention -- but on a much smaller scale. Today, AFC facilitates a vast network of agencies and services, serving thousands in Chicago and throughout Illinois.

Below is an edited transcript of an interview with Munar, a gay man living with HIV, on the fight against AIDS and why Angels still matters today.

Gregory Trotter: What was it like seeing Angels in America for the first time?

David Ernesto Munar: It was great. It was the discourse we were having.

In HIV/AIDS, early on, something emerged which was really powerful -- a notion that those affected must be engaged in the work of fighting this disease. It was actually revolutionary, something we take for granted now. Back then, it was not common to involve those affected. AIDS changed that paradigm.

People with AIDS said our voices will be heard in every aspect of the fight. We're not just patients. For a disease so stigmatizing, so mysterious, so unknown -- to make change happen requires engaging individuals who are directly affected.

GT: Angels is set in 1985. By the time it opened in Chicago in 1994, did it still feel politically timely?

DM: It was very immediate. It was very palpable that government had not done enough. It was always clear we were playing a catch-up game. In many ways, that the epidemic kind of exploded in numbers so quickly was an indictment of the inaction by government.

GT: Was Angels groundbreaking in the way it portrayed AIDS and presented it in dramatic fashion?

DM: All of our AIDS work, in the early days, happened at the fringe. We were working in STD clinics or public health offices or really small mom-and-pop storefront organizations that were created to respond to HIV/AIDS.

And now, here we are in the Royal George Theatre talking about AIDS. That in itself was pretty revolutionary. We kind of take for granted now that AIDS could be something that could be talked about in "polite company." But then, it was pretty extraordinary because you couldn't talk about HIV without talking about gay men, injection drug users and all these other concerns around poverty, homeless and sexual health that just weren't talked about much.

GT: Did it affect you in a personal way?

DM: I found it very moving. For a lot of folks in my generation -- I was 24 when I saw the play -- it was a calling. If you're gay and you're living in Chicago and you're 24, this is the challenge of your generation. This idea that there is something prophetic about the epidemic, this calling, that resonated with me.

GT: Nearly 20 years later, what has changed in the ongoing fight against AIDS?

DM: A lot has changed and, at the same time, a lot of the challenges remain the same. The prospects for survival are so much greater now. Your outlook is so much better if you get access to care early.

But the political fight didn't end when Ronald Reagan uttered the word "AIDS." In many ways, it had just begun.

For the first half of the epidemic, we didn't have the tools to control AIDS. All we had were palliative measures to help control some of the symptoms and help people die with dignity. Today, we're really helping people live for another 40 or 50 years, if we diagnose it early enough and link them to high-quality, continuous clinical care.

We have the tools. But the tragedy is we're not using them because we still struggle to muster the political and economic will to do what needs to be done. And that's a new tragedy driven by stigma.

Back in the '90s, it was hard to hide HIV after a certain point. It was easy to see someone wasting away and say, they probably have AIDS. That's not the case today. It's an invisible disease. We're thrilled we've seen a sharp decline in AIDS-related deaths. But we've also seen a sharp decline in concern about AIDS.

Complacency has set in. So, generating the momentum to fight AIDS, 30 years in, is increasingly tough.

GT: Why is Angels important today?

DM: I'm thrilled it's coming back to Chicago. It's an exciting time to see this narrative. It's really important to see where we've been in this epidemic, particularly in 2012. We're on the verge of full implementation of healthcare reform that could make a substantial difference in the trajectory of the HIV in the United States.

The political dimension of Angels is really important. The play captures some of the anxiety about what it means when government doesn't respond to a health threat to a certain community or population. And there's a vigorous debate going on now about how involved the government should be in our lives. AIDS is at the crossroads of this debate. It's not just academic.
It's a very timely production to remember and look back at where we've been. If there's a prophetic message, it's looking where we might be in the future if we don't take the right steps as a nation.

Tony Kushner will be the guest of honor at the AIDS Foundation of Chicago's 2012 fundraising dinner, An Angel Among Us: A Evening with Pulitzer Prize-winning Playwright Tony Kushner, on March 27. Tickets can be purchased online or by calling Rhett Lindsay, AFC's manager of fundraiser events, at (312) 334-0935.

The Court Theatre's preview performances of Angels in America begin March 30. Proceeds from the April 14 opening night performance go to AFC.