Joe Sykes talks about Angels in America. Why it’s timely and so relevant right now. And great writing…. Yeah, lots of actors talk about it. But just how does an actor make it work? Joe talks craft.
The Second Coming—Angels in America Returns
by Jackie Pray
It’s fabulous and daunting. Ethereal and all too human. Angels in America—the two-part modern epic by Tony Kushner. When it premiered in 1991, it changed the conversation in America.
Set in 1985, during the early days of the AIDS epidemic, the play wrestles with personal morality… sex… religion… love… conservative politics… and God—all with wicked wit, wonder and fearless honesty.
Atlanta’s Actor’s Express is taking it on. Its production of Kushner’s 2013 revised book of the play, co-directed by Freddie Ashley and Martin Damien Wilkins, opens Jan 12. But, right now, Joe Sykes, part of a powerhouse ensemble cast, is in the throes of preparing to play one of the eight characters whose lives drive the play’s multiple story lines. Joe plays Joe Pitt, a closeted gay man who is Mormon, married and an ethical nightmare. “He’s a law clerk,” Joe explains, “ he’s gay and he writes legal decisions that crush the gay population, even as he struggles to be good.”
“Yeah, it’s a challenging play,” Joe admits. “And it’s so beautiful.”
But why now? In an age of seemingly galloping advances in legal rights for LGBTQ people, why produce a play that’s more than 25 years old? Despite Kushner’s 2013 update, the play is still set in 1985; its themes, characters and story lines are essentially the same.
“ ’Cause we didn’t get it right the first time,” Joe says. We being America.
“It’s uncanny. Roy Cohn, a character in the play, in real life was a henchman for Senator Joe McCarthy and a mentor to Donald Trump. In the play, Roy Cohn is a closeted gay man who is a conservative and a real engine behind the Republican Party and the conservative agenda, and he’s dirty through and through. To his mind, he’s not gay; he just fucks men. And he destroys. He comes up with legislation and ideas that are anti-gay. Because he has all the power, it’s ok. In his mind, as long as he has the power, it’s ok.
“It’s Roy who says to the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg, whom Cohn helped put to death in real life: ‘The worst thing about being sick in America, Ethel, is you are booted out of the parade. Americans have no use for sick. Look at Reagan, he’s so healthy, he’s hardly human. He’s 100 if he’s a day. He takes a slug in the chest and two days later he’s out West riding ponies in his PJs. I mean who does that? That’s America. It’s just no country for the infirm.’
“While those lines were written more than 25 years ago, look at where we are with health care,” Joe says. “America does not care for sick people. Right now, with its schemes to repeal Obamacare, the Republican Party is saying it doesn’t want to care for sick people; it doesn’t want to support anybody. There are so many parallels in this play to what’s happening today.”
In the 1980s, AIDS was labeled a “gay disease.” People with AIDS were shunned. Misinformation was rampant. The Reagan administration just said no to reality; it refused to acknowledge the public health crisis and adequately fund AIDS research.
“People were abused through neglect and hatred. Yes, Angels in America is about gay men suffering from AIDS. But the play’s not just about gay men. If gay men can be a symbol of oppression—of those who are oppressed—then the conversation about what is and isn’t moral in America can continue.”
The two parts—Millennium Approaches and Perestroika—that comprise Angels in America follow the intersecting lives of eight New Yorkers. Joe’s character, Joe Pitt, is “a complex character to unpack,” Joe says. “He’s a confused gay man—closeted, married, a Mormon. His church acknowledges homosexuality, offers conversion therapy and tells him to ‘hate the sin, not the sinner.’
“His religion tells him that if he is strong and fully believes in God, he will not cave in to those deviant wants. Joe sees his homosexuality as a test from God. If he can overcome it, he will achieve the next tier of enlightenment. Meanwhile, he has taken Roy Cohn as his mentor, which is on par with taking Satan as a mentor. Roy tells Joe essentially, ‘If it feels good, keep doin’ it.’ And in Millennium Approaches, Joe has all these moments of joy when he actually allows himself to be himself. But feeling good for Joe means breaking all these laws.
“And the more confused he becomes, the more he leans into these laws—the laws of his religion and the anti-gay legal decisions he writes as a law clerk and Roy Cohn protégé. All of these laws tell him that at his core he’s wrong. He prays to God to be destroyed and remade. He has this intense self-hatred but he’s always trying to be good.”
So, is Joe Pitt just a hypocrite and truly bad?
“No, he’s not bad. He believes what he’s doing will make America better.
“There are strong parallels to today. As we try to defund health care, restrict individual and civil rights, demonize whole groups of people, it takes some extraordinary moral contortions to tell ourselves we’re making America better. Portraying those moral contortions—with a pure heart—is a great challenge for an actor.”
Freddie Ashley, artistic director of Actor’s Express and co-director of Angels in America, is confident that Joe is equal to the challenge. “I’ve known Joe since he was just out of college and it has been extraordinary to watch him evolve from a promising newcomer into a force to be reckoned with,” Ashley says. “He attacks his work with intellectual rigor and always finds the spine of humanity in each character. He’s bringing the character of Joe Pitt to life with detail, nuance and power.”
Still, preparing a principal role in two 120-page plays has got to be intimidating.
“My answer to everything is to pay attention to punctuation.”
Dashes, commas and…
As an actor, Joe has a reputation for being raw. He’s taken on slash-and-burn roles that combine ferocity and tenderness, wit and revelation. “But, really,” he says, “I’m highly technical about the whole process.”
A lengthy table read early in the production put the whole cast at ease. “Everyone needs to know how the play sounds all at one time. That’s the first step. We did a read through and then we sat at the table and we kept reading the play. We’d read a scene and talk about it for an hour or more. It’s a real luxury. And I have so much respect for all the people involved in this production. Carolyn Cook, a tremendous actor who plays Hannah and who lost dear friends to AIDS in the ‘80s, reminded us why this play is so important. I can’t tell you how much we were all moved by it.”
As he speaks, it’s mid-December and Joe is at home in Atlanta surrounded by the debris of a recent move. The new slant-roof apartment is a third-story walkup with surprising windows. They open onto lofty tree branches. It’s a magical tree-house view, available only to those willing to make the daily three-flight climb. Joe turns his back on the view. He’s on a roll, talking about his craft.
“When you have two 120-page plays that you have to put up in five weeks, with Christmas in between, you lean on technique,” Joe says. “That’s where we are. We’re leaning on technique right now.
“You have 5 pages here and 8 pages there, 4 pages over there and here’s another 5 pages. So you just tackle those 5 pages, you put them in your head and, honestly, it’s not until it’s in your brain that you can understand it. It’s not ‘til you’ve looked at it enough and memorized it enough that you can make a choice. You have to make a choice. What emotion are you playing? What tactic are you playing? What are you trying to show when you say this—these three words or that five sentences. When can you go fast? Hey, it’s already there. The whole script is riddled with ‘pause… little pause… a beat… Joe laughs….’ A good script is essentially a blueprint of what the actor has to do and it’s the actor’s and the director’s job to get on the same page, literally, and figure out what the playwright has asked.
“People talk about the differences between theater and film. There are plenty of differences but the writer is key to both. You just have to know how to read. Every intonation is already written down.
“Take, for example, when you see an ellipsis in a sentence. What does that mean? It means the character has a thought that—one—he can’t complete because he’s scared to say it out loud. Or—two—he can’t complete it because he doesn’t really know. It’s a decision between those two things.
“When there is a dash in the middle of your line, that means your character has had a new thought and has interrupted the previous thought. We have those types of things in conversation all the time. Tony Kushner’s writing is a gift to the world. He knows how people actually talk. In that sense, he’s and very much like Steve Yockey. (Actor’s Express has premiered a number of LA playwright Steve Yockey’s award-winning plays. Joe originated pivotal characters in several of them.) If you look at Steve’s architecture on the page, he’s telling you how to say the word already. Punctuation tells you how the language is working—the thought process behind the language—so you can understand what to do and when to do it.”
“A comma can indicate a 180-degree shift—sometimes. I’m good at figuring that out. I love it when I have a five-word sentence with no punctuation, ‘cause I just say it. There’s nothing you have to put on this. The words will do all the work.”
How does this approach play out in Angels in America?
“Joe Pitt is a character who is morally constipated. On the inside he’s confused. He has many emotions happening to him at the same time. Still, I’ve never had such a calm character. Inner turmoil, yes. He’s torn all the time in different directions. Inner conflict. You can’t play inner conflict; you have to bring it out of you.”
But, Joe explains, when you’re acting you can’t play two things at once.
“Well, sometimes you can be happy/scared, I don’t know, or sad and triumphant. But for clarity’s sake, you should be sad and then triumphant. Or you should be scared and then happy. And the language, the text, is your guide to when those switches happen. And they could happen in a word, a comma.
“A good writer uses and exploits punctuation. Some actors get upset with playwrights because their punctuation gets so specific that they have fewer choices because of it. No. There are always a million things that can happen in the space that the playwright has given you to make those choices.”
“It’s funny, in Angels, there are so many words to memorize. But if you don’t memorize all the periods, all the commas, all the ellipses, all the parentheses, all the dashes, then you haven’t done your job.”
“When I was doing Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo…. you have something that’s in all capital letters and has three exclamation points behind it, guess what, you’re yellin’ it. You’re yelling it out loud and you’re yelling it with fury. And in Millennium Approaches, I have two words in the whole play that are in capital letters and they’re followed by a period. So what do you do with that? Not quite sure just yet. But… you’ll know it when you got it.
“We have a luxury here with Angels in America. Kushner’s been tweaking this thing forever. You can see the beauty of it in the architecture of the scenes on the page.
“Kushner’s characters speak in paragraphs… until they don’t. Until they have one giant, two-page monologue that has no breaks whatsoever. Guess what you do with that? You go fast. That’s what you do. You go fast. If you don’t have a period; if you have a sentence that runs the course of five lines on the page, you know what you do, you take a deep breath and then you get it all out because when there are no periods, when there’s no time to breathe, everything is urgent. It’s all there. You just read it. How do you get good at it? You just keep doing it.”