When President Trump reportedly asked, “Where’s my Roy Cohn?” during a rant last March about his attorney general, Jeff Sessions, chances are he wasn’t thinking about the character in Angels in America.
It’s true that Roy Cohn is one of the most memorable figures in Tony Kushner’s plays Millennium Approaches and Perestroika, performed together as Angels in America and currently enjoying a widely praised revival on Broadway. But before Kushner’s version of the character debuted in 1991, Roy Cohn was a very real person — a lawyer who rose to prominence during the McCarthy era, was eventually disbarred for unethical conduct, and died of AIDS in 1986. He was also the one-time mentor to a young Donald Trump.
The social media accounts for the current Broadway production, which stars Nathan Lane as Cohn alongside Andrew Garfield as the reluctant prophet, Prior Walter, latched on to Trump’s offhand question, incorporating “Where’s my Roy Cohn?” into an ad campaign. The tenuous connection between Angels in America and Trump — which was there, however subtextually, from the beginning — was suddenly overt. If you want to comprehend Trump, the ad might have been saying, see this nearly 30-year-old play.
There might be some truth to that: Although Trump’s name is never mentioned in the play, Angels in America’s dissection of the Republican Party — its isolationist, individualist policies and strong personalities — provides a sort of road map toward our current political moment. But while Kushner concedes the associations, he’s wary of how some audience members might conflate Trump and Cohn. Cohn, he argues, was deeply loyal, forming a lifelong attachment to Joe McCarthy, the notorious anti-communist senator. Trump, he counters, is loyal only as long as the other person is useful. By Kushner’s account, he dumped Cohn as soon as he learned that Cohn had AIDS.
“I found myself in an odd place of wanting to defend [Roy], because I don't think that they're the same person, and I was nervous going in. Are people gonna read the play through that kind of Trumpian mirror?” Kushner told BuzzFeed News. “Are they gonna try to turn the Roy in my play into a borderline psychotic narcissist like Donald Trump?”
“I think there’s really very little that’s worse than Donald Trump.”
“Not all villains are equal,” he continued. “Some really bad people are worse than other really bad people. I think there’s really very little that’s worse than Donald Trump.”
Get Kushner going on Trump and he will hold nothing back — he speaks in thoughtful, impassioned monologues that reflect a deep engagement with US political culture. At times, he sounds like a gentler, more self-aware version of Angels in America’s Louis, Prior’s neurotic, diatribe-loving boyfriend, played in this production by James McArdle. That current runs throughout the plays, which serve, among other things, as a searing indictment of Reaganism. (Though first performed in 1991, the plays take place in 1985 and 1986.)
Of course, there’s much more to Angels in America than that — how else to account for the seven and a half hour runtime of the combined plays? The “gay fantasia on national themes,” as it’s subtitled, follows a series of characters, including Prior, who begins to receive celestial messages as he’s battling AIDS; Roy Cohn, who tries to mask his AIDS as liver cancer; Louis, who abandons Prior when he needs him most; Roy’s closeted Mormon protégé, Joe Pitt (Lee Pace); and Joe’s pill-addled wife Harper (Denise Gough). The characters converge and fight for survival as the play asks grand questions: How do we become the people we are meant to be? And what is the responsibility we owe to ourselves — and to each other?
“It’s about being true to yourself and, once you are true to yourself, how to be true to the people around you and find a community,” said Marianne Elliott, the director who first took on Angels in America at London’s National Theatre last year and has now transferred the production to Broadway. “It has a political statement to make about [the 1980s] but it’s very similar to now, I would say.”
Change — and how difficult that is to achieve — is perhaps the play’s most prominent theme. The epic arcs of Kushner’s characters reflect a conception of change as an arduous, at times unbearably time-consuming process, but one that is ultimately achievable. That notion — that real change doesn’t happen overnight but rather through sometimes tedious work — runs in contrast to the quick fixes championed by politicians, like Trump, who promise to shake things up.
Sounding eerily like the character he plays in Angels in America, McArdle spoke candidly about the current state of affairs in these terms. He’s not American — his Scottish accent is particularly striking after you’ve heard him employ Louis’s nebbishy New York voice — but he’s studied his history. And he believes that, along with racism and xenophobia, the rise of Trump and of people like him in the past is tied to a disenfranchised working class eager for change.
“At any point in history where fascism takes flight is when people’s backs are put against the wall and that’s what I feel has happened here,” he said. “But the actual truth is, if we do want change for the future, it’s gonna be hard. [Trump is] giving them the sort of easy way out, and I think that’s what the play talks about — there’s no easy way out for change. If you want proper change, you’re gonna have to go into the storm.”
“If you want proper change, you’re gonna have to go into the storm.”
The themes of change, progress, and how we connect to one another are certainly not linked to any singular political phenomenon, and the timeless quality of Angels in America underscores that. At the same time, there is an uncomfortable prescience to so much of the play in terms of where we are now. It’s not just the age-old debate over the role of government in taking care of its citizens — one could read Kushner’s heaven, with its absent god, through that lens — or of how much personal responsibility those citizens bear when it comes to taking care of one another. The play also references climate change (Harper’s concern over the hole in the ozone layer is treated as a symptom of her mental illness by Joe) and immigration (America, a country built by immigrants — among other groups — refuses to embrace them).
That relevance to the current conversation is especially impressive when you consider the specificity with which Kushner infused his work: The characters talk at length about their contemporary politics. Kushner admitted that he was nervous about writing such detailed references, fearing they would one day be archaic, but he now considers their inclusion “one of the only genuine innovations of the play.”
“There’s a tendency to sort of want to avoid making a play dated by being not precise about the historical moment, but politics has a lot to do with specificity and you can’t really talk much about politics if you only deal with abstractions,” he said.
As Elliott put it, “If you’ve got really great writing, the more specific it is, weirdly the more universal it becomes.”
But while it’s hard to imagine a time in which Angels in America wouldn’t feel relevant, it’s impossible to ignore the unique timeliness of doing this production under the Trump administration. It’s not just the Roy Cohn of it all, but also that so much of what the play warns about — the estrangement between people across stark political divides and what Kushner calls “anti-government incoherence” — hasn’t gone away. “He kind of saw what was going to happen with the Republican Party,” Gough said. “It just feels like the politics of the play are more prevalent now than they were then.”
“I do think that there’s an obligation to hope.”
Despite the progress that has come to pass, for many people things feel worse than ever — or at least worse than anything they remember. That makes the play, by Elliott’s estimation, “very, very alive.” “The problem about period pieces [is] you look at them through a kind of haze of Vaseline and think, That was then, but it’s OK; we don’t have to worry about it because it’s not now,” she said. “Whereas actually what’s horrifying, electrifying, and inspiring about this is that that was then — it was in living memory — but it’s the same if not more extreme now. Because of that situation then, it only created a world that’s even more like it was then.”
Framed that way, Angels in America sounds awfully depressing. Yes, there is something semi-tragic about viewing it from a modern perspective: The characters sometimes sound painfully naive, their fears for the future both accurate and, in retrospect, restrained. When Joe tells Harper, in so many words, that Reagan will make the country great again, it’s difficult not to cringe. When Belize (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett) says he hates America, he sounds like the only sane person onstage. And then there are these prophetic words from a homeless woman (Amanda Lawrence): “In the new century, I think we will all be insane.”
And yet, there is an optimism to Angels in America that provides some relief to the audience after hours of watching these characters go through hell. It’s encapsulated in the final two monologues of the play. First, there is Harper, who has left Joe and is traveling to San Francisco. “Nothing’s lost forever,” she says. “In this life, there is a kind of painful progress. Longing for what we’ve left behind, and dreaming ahead.” Then there’s Prior, who ends the show with a speech that includes his vision of a brighter future: “We won’t die secret deaths anymore. The world only spins forward. We will be citizens.”
When Prior’s speech was first delivered on Broadway in the early '90s, there was reason for hope for those who felt beaten down by the past decade: New protocols for treating AIDS were extending lives, and the arrival of Bill Clinton in the White House seemed to signal the end of Reaganism and with it, the government’s refusal to respond to or even acknowledge the AIDS crisis. But hope was still a tenuous concept, and fear persisted. “It was the moment after the worst of the thing had happened,” Kushner recalled. “The play was talking to an audience of people who were still very raw from the war.”
So much has changed since then, but many of the audience members who see this production of Angels in America may again feel that optimism is in short supply. Kushner, however, isn’t concerned about the message falling flat. After all, Prior’s speech isn’t just a cheerful reminder that things will improve — it’s a call to arms. “I do think that there’s an obligation to hope,” Kushner said. “And to hope is not to just wish that it would get better, but to look for the plausible occasions whence hope might be anticipated, something positive might be anticipated, and then work for those.”
This is the message that the cast and creative team behind Angels in America kept returning to. It’s the message of the play itself. Yes, change is possible, but it requires constant persistence. Kushner cited the gun control activism of the Parkland students, while Pace pointed to the #MeToo movement and the decades of progress made by the LGBTQ community. In Angels in America, Prior has to literally wrestle an angel who demands he stand still instead of moving forward. The angels, Elliott noted, are “quite right-wing”: “They’re the enemies of progress.”
It’s not just about fighting back, however — it’s also about standing together. The play concludes with Prior alongside his chosen family: Louis, Belize, and Joe’s mother, Hannah (Susan Brown). “You look after the group,” McArdle said. “They’re creating a system of being together.”
“The process works. It works. It might take longer than we wish, but the thing actually works.”
That was by intention. “When [Prior] blesses us at the end of the play, what he’s acknowledging is the immense power of human community, and that’s what the enemies of life are most interested in assaulting and destroying,” Kushner said. “It’s all about atomizing, splintering, denying the connections between people and responsibilities that we have for one another.”
While he referenced Trump often, Kushner’s beliefs about the power of community — and the need for resilience in the face of those who would tear it apart — existed long before the current president. So, too, his conception of progress as something that necessitates tremendous effort. The play is not, then, a protest against the current administration: These big ideas had value when he first expressed them, and they will have value long after Trump is out of office.
At the same time, anyone struggling through our current reality will have a hard time not clinging to that brighter perspective on where we go from here, and the message Angels in America imparts might provide a meaningful way forward. Not to mention the fact that the distance from when the play was first performed to now offers something equally useful: perspective. The light at the end of the tunnel seems impossibly far away, Kushner realizes, but then, it did when he was first writing Angels in America. And it does to all his characters — who manage, over the course of an epic emotional and sometimes physical battle, to come out the other side.
“The process works,” Pace said. “It works. It might take longer than we wish, but the thing actually works. It’s frustrating and painful. It rips your guts out and forces you to confront things that you don’t want to confront, as an individual and as a community, but it works. That, I think, is the truth of the play.”