After seeing a production of Angels in America, Pt. 1: Millennium Approaches by Tony Kushner at the Wilma Theatre in Philadelphia back in June, I couldn’t believe I hadn’t seen the show before. I found the material, the grand combination of mysticism with wit, grit, and politics, so stimulating that there was no way I would be waiting until the fall to see the Wilma’s production of Angels in America, Pt. 2: Perestroika. I journeyed to the library to pick up a copy of the HBO film series interpretation as well as hard copies of the play, and I have been investigating why Angels in America is compelling and relevant for today’s society through its thematic elements of freedom, sexual identity, painful abandonment, compromise, justice, race, religion, politics vs. personal identity, and progress vs. stasis. Like Shakespeare’s works, it is an epic piece of art that speaks beyond its own time period of publication by revealing universal human struggles in a unique way—but perhaps unlike many of Shakespeare’s existential tragedies, Angels ultimately points to hope amidst inevitably painful progress. It is not blind hope, not sentimental hope–it is sustainable hope that acknowledges the suffering of life but also the joy in our ability to move forward.
Towards the end of Perestroika, Prior Walter, a gay man diagnosed with AIDS who has been abandoned by his lover and who has “prophetic” visions throughout the show, finds himself in a San Francisco-like Heaven arguing with the Angels. The Angels have been urging him to halt human motion and progress, to take up the “Tome of Respite” and stay with the static Angels, but Prior ultimately rejects the Angels and declares, “We can’t stop…progress, migration, motion is…modernity. It’s what living things do…Even if we go faster than we should. We can’t wait. And wait for what? God…?” He says, “I want more life…We live past hope. If I can find hope anywhere, that’s it, that’s the best I can do. It’s so much not enough, so inadequate but… Bless me anyway, I want more life.”
Although impossible to pin down all of what Angels in America is about, the painful progress expressed in Prior’s words is certainly a core theme. Politically, the show takes place during the Reagan Era, and although we are still dealing with conservative Reaganism today, progress is in motion. It is undeniable that our President Barack Obama’s recent statement about openly supporting gay marriage is progress, significant progress especially since the terrible silence of the Reagan Era in response to the AIDS epidemic. In an interview on Democracy Now, playwright Tony Kushner says he “felt the Earth move,” in response to Obama’s affirmation of gay rights. He also notes, though, that while same-sex marriage could be an achievable goal towards justice for the GLBT community, there are many other goals that will take time and fighting to achieve, and that patience is necessary. He calls himself “more of an evolutionary than a revolutionary,” which reminds me of Obama’s words about how his perspective took time to “evolve,” largely through personal interactions, into his current stance. In the interview, Kushner also warns of the dangers of a potential Romney presidency—that it would bring back the terror of a Reagan presidency. The political tension throughout Angels is very topical as we approach a presidential election, and not only because one of the characters in the play, Joe Pitt, a conservative Mormon court clerk who abandons his wife for Prior’s former lover Louis, vaguely reminds us of Mitt Romney. Along with Roy Cohn, a powerful New York lawyer who dies from AIDS (the character is based on the real Roy Cohn), these characters face an intense battle between their established/inherited rules of living and their personal identities. For Joe, he feels a constant guilt for being a homosexual Mormon–his repression and his marriage with Harper emotionally wrecks them both. For Roy, he demands that his AIDS be called “liver cancer,” because although he has sex with men, as he tells his nurse, he is “not a homosexual… Homosexuals are men who have zero clout. Does this sound like me?” Roy’s hierarchical view of the world and his inherited political system force him to live in denial, haunted by spirits he tormented, and to die alone. Fear and denial of personal identity lead to destruction; the reality of our world today is that homophobia is still rampant, and by allowing an inherited, static view of the world that condemns various sexual identities to remain rooted in our country, devastating destruction occurs. Our inherited attitudes reach further than sexual identity into the realms of race and religion, and as the character Belize says, “The white cracker who wrote the national anthem knew what he was doing. He set the word “free” to a note so high nobody can reach it. That was deliberate. Nothing on earth sounds less like freedom to me.”
What I have been calling an inherited view of the world or an inherited system of politics is also inextricably linked with race and spirituality. Louis’ famous passage, “…this reaching out for a spiritual past in a country where no indigenous spirits exist—only the Indians, I mean Native American spirits and we killed them off so now, there are no gods here, no ghosts and spirits in America, there are no angels in America, no spiritual past, no racial past, there’s only the political, and the decoys and the ploys to maneuver around the inescapable battle of politics” seems to be contradicted throughout the rest of the play. Louis may proclaim that there are no angels in America, but Prior’s vision shows otherwise. The Angel he sees seems to be an emblem of conservative views and tradition—she wants humanity to stop migrating, inventing, progressing, because it shakes up heaven. But Prior’s visions really come from himself, from his own life and imagination—his cosmic experience is just another dimension to the truth of his life. What the angel says is a reflection of views inculcated into the American soul through various mediums, and through a natural fear of the unknown. What she says has some poignant truth—that we “destroy” and “trample” the earth, but she does not see that along with pain, healing can come through progress, too. Prior learns to listen to advice from Hannah Pitt (Joe Pitt’s Mormon mom): “An angel is just a belief, with wings and arms that can carry you. It’s naught to be afraid of. If it lets you down, reject it. Seek for something new.”
It is time to let these angels in America, who are afraid of progress and change, go; it is time to seek for something new, something like Belize’s vision of Heaven in which “Race, taste, and history [are] finally overcome.”
I believe in the progressive power of the theatre. I have focused much of this article on the text of the play itself, because it is so complex and beautiful, but it is meant to be experienced in the theatre. The power of theatre lies in the potency of tangible human energy, of breathing and living in the same room as the characters struggling moment-to-moment in their search for identity, freedom, fulfillment, and love. We discover a human connection that we can’t get from watching TV or reading a newspaper. Just as the characters in the play often seem to have shared visions, or visions that bleed into one another, the audience members collectively partake in the visions of the characters, in the vision of Angels in America as a whole. We are witnesses to the events that unfold before us and move us; we are unified by our collective experience. And this experience takes place simultaneously in the personal, political, and cosmic arenas—by witnessing these characters with cosmic and historical visions, we become aware that this is us, that we, too, dwell in these different dimensions all the time.
The magic of theatre also comes from balancing illusion with making the audience aware of how the illusion was created. When I saw Part 1 at the Wilma, the Angel who crashes intro Prior’s room at the end of the show really crashed through the ceiling, and it seemed like some of the hanging lights were dismantled. Rather than ruining the magic of the show, this moment made me hyper aware of practicality, about the skill needed to make the Angel’s flight possible, about all the underpinnings of what makes a show run. The whole play is a bit like this: majestic and occasionally transcendental, but also grounded, able to make fun of itself, and unwilling to let us escape from where we are right now. Almost in the way a Brecht play would do, it stimulates our intellect by not letting us get “lost” in the characters.
The play’s unit set added to the theatrical magic. The set was deceivingly simple, with all white walls (reminiscent of hospital rooms, the snow in Harper’s hallucinations of Antarctica, and a metaphorical “blank slate”) and a staircase and some pieces of easily moveable furniture. The actors were part of rapid furniture shifts, and the staging often included two synchronized scenes bleeding into one another. This was especially powerful during the simultaneous abandonment scenes between Prior/Louis and Harper/Joe and helped illuminate the shared patterns of suffering that humans experience. The ability to rapidly morph from scene to scene was a key aspect of the set that reflects the kaleidoscopic perspectives in the show about change.
The theatre is a necessary venue for political and controversial topics; since the time of Ancient Greek theatre, it was understood that coming to see a play did not only involve emotion or entertainment, but it also involves exploring the implications of cultural and political ideas in current society and how we can take action. The theatre is meant to be a gathering place for us to commune and explore new ways of relating to one another. I appreciated that the Wilma provided a pre-show event including delicious food, drinks and informational materials about AIDS. The Wilma also had a free Community Conversation to discuss HIVV/AIDS in Philadelphia. These are good ways to not only provide a welcoming community, but also to promote discourse amongst the theatre-goers, to show us how we are implicated in the show, and why we should be invested.
I feel lucky to have seen a brilliant production of Angels in America at a theatre near me, as it is a complex work (3 hours for each part!) that I imagine many theatres are intimidated to take on. If you learn about a production of the show happening near you, I strongly recommend you seize the opportunity to see it. Anyone in the vicinity of Philadelphia take note that both parts of Angels in America will be showing at The Wilma in September and October—what a tremendous event. At the very least, read the plays and watch the film version, and enjoy the ride and keep your mind wide.
The world only spins forward.