Why Is "Angels In America" Still The Most Prominent Story Being Told About AIDS?
Tony Kushner’s Pulitzer Prize–winning play is back on Broadway 25 years after its debut. But does it hold up — or is its enduring legacy misguided nostalgia for when white men dominated AIDS narratives?
The most dramatic story I know about AIDS in America is not one I’ve seen played out on a theater stage. Instead, that story was outlined in a 2016 in Centers for Disease Control report: One of every two black men who have sex with men in the United States are projected to become HIV-positive in their lifetimes, even though they have “fewer partners and lower rates of recreational drug use than other gay men.”
The most dramatic line I know about AIDS in America was not written by a playwright, but by New York Times magazine journalist Linda Villarosa. According to a story she wrote last year: “If gay and bisexual African-American men made up a country, its rate would surpass ... all other nations” on earth.
So many HIV/AIDS narratives written by writers working in poetry, journalism, history, and drama today — from Cathy Cohen’s Boundaries of Blackness to E. Patrick Johnson’s Sweet Tea, to Kevin Mumford’s Not Straight, Not White to the poems of Danez Smith and Justin Phillip Reed — share something with that morbid CDC statistic and Villarosa’s grim observation. These stories place black people at the heart of the American AIDS story, something the most celebrated play about AIDS, Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, fails to do.
I was a teenager laying on the floor of my parents’ suburban home watching the 1993 Tony Awards when a snippet of that mystical play first caught my attention. I didn’t yet clearly understand I was gay, but I was often cruising for things that were kinda gay though not too gay. Since my mom loved angels and our home was filled with representations of them, my obsession with a play about them wasn’t too suspect.
And obsessed I became. Though I couldn’t afford to see it when it came to Los Angeles, I bought a copy of Angels in America Part One: Millennium Approaches as soon it was published and devoured it in a single reading. Perusing my tattered copy, the underlined lines seem so juvenile and corny to me now, but they appealed to my 16-year-old soul.
I didn’t get to see Angels dramatized until Mike Nichols’ 2003 HBO film, a year in which my father died, I finally understood myself to be gay, and I sought guidance from angels more than ever. But I didn’t get to see Angels fully mounted onstage until I saw it in previews on Broadway in February, a quarter century after I’d first read it, in a production from England’s National Theater directed by Marianne Elliott.
The play works in how funny it is and — when the Angel is onstage — how magical it can be. Many of the laugh lines are still carved into my brain. Where it doesn’t work, however, is in its terrible racial politics, which are so egregious I was ashamed I hadn’t noticed them sooner. But that’s the trouble with Angels: It’s so solemnly self-important, has been so validated as a Very Important AIDS Story, and is so bombastically long, that it’s hard for viewers to see how conservative and basic it often is.
In its nearly eight-hour running time, there are only two nonwhite characters who are typically played by the same black actor: a Magical Negro named “Mr. Lies” (a travel agent who transports crazy white people during their hallucinations) and an equally Magical Negro nurse named Norman Arriaga — known to his friends as Belize — who is there to clean up the emotional mess and literal blood of the otherwise all-white cast.
Just as when it debuted, much of the buzz around Angels on Broadway is about how relevant Kushner’s parable is to contemporary America. In many ways, the nation that elected Trump to “Make America Great Again” isn’t so politically different from the Reagan-era “Morning in America” depicted in Angels decades ago. New Deal liberalism is still under assault, AIDS is still lethally stigmatized, and much of the US still views itself in relation to a cartoonish idea about Russia.
But what has definitely changed is me. I’m no longer an isolated queer child overwhelmed by bombast and grateful for almost any queer story: I’m a 40-year-old AIDS researcher who understands that Angels in America is not a particularly interesting or honest representation of those early years of the plague. Indeed, there have been many better representations of AIDS in America for decades now, but none have achieved canonization quite like Angels has. And while Angels doesn’t purport to be history as such — its subtitle is “a gay fantasia on national themes,” after all — it has an outsize cultural role in how Americans imagine AIDS as Gone With the Wind had for antebellum slavery and Black Panther has recently had for imagining Africa.
For this reason, it’s important to ask who gets to tell mainstream AIDS stories in America, and to consider why this one — about white, gay men who don’t really engage in any political resistance — keeps getting retold.
Roy Cohn — especially as portrayed by Nathan Lane in relation to lanky, “All American” Lee Pace as Joe — is a monster: a fat, diseased, crude, cursing Jewish lawyer who buggers on the down-low. He tries to corrupt Joe, who stands in for innocent American white youth in the form of a guilt-ridden Mormon trawling for dick behind his wife’s back. It is doubly ironic that Roy, who dies of AIDS, supported Reagan in the play (who ignored AIDS for so long) and mentored Trump in real life (who ended the Office of National AIDS policy and routinely insults Haitians regarding AIDS).
Roy’s and Joe’s daddy/son relationship feels more honest than Angels’ main lovers’. When Prior (Andrew Garfield) tells Louis he has AIDS, Louis (James McArdle) abandons him; Louis runs into the arms of Cohn’s lover Joe, while Prior takes comfort in the arms of Joe’s mother Hannah (Susan Brown). As ACT UP Oral History Project co-creator Sarah Schulman has pointed out, this is antithetical to what actually happened when AIDS became undeniable in New York: Queers took care of one another while their straight families of origin largely abandoned them.
Kushner subjects us to gay abandonment and straight salvation.
Deep into Part Two: Perestroika, Prior acknowledges this: “There are thousands of gay men in New York City with AIDS and nearly every one of them is being taken care of by a...friend or by...a lover...Everyone got that, except, me. I got you.” But weirdly, we don’t see this, nor any form of queer political resistance happening in the America of Angels, for Kushner subjects us to gay abandonment and straight salvation.
But what’s really unforgivable are Angel’s racial politics. In an epically long play about AIDS, a single black actor portrays two small characters as the emotional mule for not just all the white characters, but for the white playwright and audience, too. Though the actors who play Mr. Lies and Belize do wonderful things (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett is stunning in the current production, as was Jeffrey Wright in the film), the role is that of a Magical Negro: a male mammy who exists primarily to develop white characters emotionally and enlighten white audiences.
Cohn calls Belize a “nigger” and that’s how he’s treated by everyone in Angels. When he’s on duty as a nurse, Belize takes physical care of Roy. When he’s off duty, Belize takes emotional care of Prior (when Louis leaves him) and of Louis (when he feels guilty for leaving Prior) and (as Mr. Lies) of Denise Gough’s Harper. When Roy bled all over the stage in the play’s current iteration and I wondered how a stagehand would clean it up, I rolled my eyes when Belize did it — turning the sole black actor into the janitor.
But the scene that made me most uncomfortable is when Belize and Louis are on a bench and Louis is talking — and talking, and talking, ejaculating a monologue of bullshit at Belize while the black character throws shade in looks. When I saw it, the overwhelmingly white audience found this hilarious. But if you’re a queer of color and have ever been spoken to in this way, you don’t find Louis very funny.
Kushner’s “joke” here is supposedly how funny it is when clueless white liberals talk over black people. But this is only funny to white liberals. Angels is coming back on the heels of the critical success of playwright Martin McDonagh’s film Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, which makes a similar mistake in having its heroine, Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand), use the phrase “nigger torturer” repeatedly for comic effect — ostensibly to show her support for black victims of police violence? — while the movie turns the one black woman in the movie into a near-mute prop.
Belize isn’t exactly a prop, and he speaks up about his anger, complaining he’s “trapped in a world of white people.” In a 2016 Slate oral history, actor Jeffrey Wright said: “Belize’s place there is not comic relief, although he’s witty and all of that.” The African-American director of the original Broadway production, George C. Wolfe, said that “Belize was as smart and had just as aggressive a degree of intellectual rigor as Louis did,” which was “important to me, because I didn’t just want a black gay clown.”
Belize may not be a clown, but he certainly functions as comic relief for the audience. And what’s more, because Kushner segregates him in a lily-white world; he exists more for the emotional development of the white characters than he does for his own. Belize says, “I have a man, uptown,” but we never see Belize’s man and know nothing about him nor any of Belize’s family. In Angels, Jewish characters have conversations with other Jews, Mormon characters have conversations with other Mormons, but the black characters only talk to white people. The result? Angels in America gives the impression that black American queerness only exists in relation to white, gay men.
And this representation is egregious, given how HIV/AIDS disproportionately slaughtered — and continues to slaughter — black people in America. In any of the recent print or podcast interviews with Kushner, I haven’t heard him asked about race. But a decade ago, he gave a very revealing answer to New York magazine about what he thought “may be the best scene in the play — we call it the ‘Negro Nightmare’ scene,” in which Belize tells Roy about his vision of Heaven. “I’d remembered a dream I had after my grandfather died. He was angry at me about being gay, and then this black man showed up and said, ‘I am the Black Other.’ So I wrote it after we started rehearsals.” Kushner literally dreamt of othering black people, the black director Wolfe liked it, and it made it into the play.
I happened to see Angels the same week I read Keith Murphy’s searing eight-subject profile on “what happened to those lone, ‘token’ black actors?” from ’90s TV shows. Since then, I’ve been considering how seeing a single black character (such as Nikki on Dawson’s Creek or Belize in Angels) exist in a world where they’re wholly dependent on white people can be damaging to both actors and viewers. Isolated black characters tell audiences black people can’t find love from each other, but only from white people.
Angels in America gives the impression that black American queerness only exists in relation to white, gay men.
The same white-centered stories keep getting amplified and rewarded, even though work which centers on black people and AIDS is not new. Marlon Riggs’ 1989 film Tongues Untied — which uses Joseph Beam’s quote “Black men loving Black men is the revolutionary act” as a refrain — premiered as Kushner was developing Angels. The movie was produced for public TV with a seemingly modest budget. Angels, however — which was produced for HBO with a $60 million budget — is widely taught in schools, and has been revived in major productions around the world. Consequently, most of the real black men in Tongues Untied who died of AIDS (like Riggs, Beam, and Essex Hemphill) are far less widely known than the fictional white characters in Angels.
Narratives about gay rights that have been embraced in recent years — the Broadway production and HBO film of Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart, the many stage productions and HBO film of The Laramie Project (which I crewed on), HBO’s The Case Against 8, and the entire How to Survive a Plague franchise — all center white, gay men like Angels does. And they do so by framing white, gay men as both the most extreme victims and valiant heroes in fighting discrimination in America all while sidelining or ignoring black voices.
I had many reservations about the portrayal of humans (particularly the women, who are caricatures) in this new production, but I was also reminded of the one truly queer thing I loved about it. Magically performed in the current production by Amanda Lawrence and six puppeteering “angel shadows,” the Angel is neither god nor human. And while vaguely gendered as female, the Angel isn’t really a binary gender. This is the most genderqueer element of the play — something I subconsciously sensed as a younger reader but certainly couldn’t really articulate. (If written today, it would make sense for the Angel to use they/them pronouns.)
But the play’s queerest element still can’t make up for how there isn’t a multiplicity of people of color (or experiences). Art can’t responsibly tell the story of America only through the experiences of white people, nor can it tell the story of AIDS without dramatizing the specific horrors it has had on the black community — and yet, Angels does both. Because not unlike how it imagines heaven to be a “city much like San Francisco” — a city that has had an alarming decline in its black population in recent decades — Angels in America gentrifies blackness out of the American AIDS story. ●
The title of Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri was misstated in an earlier version of this post.
Steven W. Thrasher, a BuzzFeed contributor, is a doctoral candidate in American studies at New York University.