Angels in America: The Art, Heart and Healing of a Modern Classic

Posted on August 14, 2014, 5:03 pm
14 mins

Part one of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America opens at Seattle’s Intiman Theatre tonight, Thursday, August 14. It’s an exciting production for many reasons: the artists involved, the continuing reinvigoration of Intiman’s program, and of course the play itself, which turned 23 this summer. It remains a vital and complex play, but its context and the ways it inverts decay, depression and oppression into regeneration, humor and freedom may not be fully understood by audiences today. It is worth reviewing the history while looking forward to this staging, whose creative team is uniquely suited to the challenge.

Haven and Hell

[dropcap size=small]T[/dropcap]he big, public premiere of Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes happened one month shy of the 10th anniversary of the CDC report that started the timeline of HIV/AIDS, originally called GRID (gay-related immune deficiency). Though not merely a “gay disease,” it was labeled as such from the start, adding to the ignominy of having it. To this day, the stigma surrounding it reeks of homophobia, and perhaps as a result even knowing too much about it raises eyebrows.

AIDS in America was first detected in—and eventually devastated—gay communities that had formed mostly in coastal cities following WWII. The communities started spontaneously and small, when outed individuals were discharged and did not feel they could return home to live in shame—or prison, as the McCarthy Era saw many gay men and women incarcerated by the mere fact of their sexuality. Lobotomy was promulgated as a “treatment,” one that destroyed lives when it didn’t prove fatal outright.

Hostility toward LGBT people had not waned in the Reagan-era, but united fronts of protest had been forming between women, sex workers and sexual minorities. It was at times a tenuous coalition, but those involved saw that patriarchal dogma enshrined in law was common to all of their struggles and had no place in a society that deemed itself free, equal and democratic. When HIV/AIDS hit, the coalition was destroyed. In addition to the loss of life, a nascent political movement with enormous potential was stopped dead.

HIV/AIDS was an all around boon for social conservatives, who had surged politically with the rise of the Religious Right, which itself was animated by a reaction to minority rights movements in the 60s. The havens of gay life and free love attitudes that provided shelter and acceptance for the disowned became instrumental in spreading the disease more thoroughly. As gay communities saw themselves waste away painfully, inexorably, what resounded in the media was the hideous cackling of conservative pundits who declared AIDS a divine punishment. Even the White House cracked jokes as the body count rose. Others merely turned a blind eye. (Diamanda Galas famously gave her Plague Mass performance at St John the Divine’s in New York City in 1990, which excoriated the inaction and judgment of the Catholic church during the crisis.)

Throughout history, to the lasting disgrace of our species, when oppression of a minority leads to extended consequences for the oppressed, the dominant rhetoric is not of compassion and contrition, but of heartless delight in their suffering and debasement—an insistence that the prejudice is vindicated and justifiable, as if the suffering of the minority is the result of their “flaws” (race, class, sex, et al) and not the circumstances they face.

I myself heard such obloquy growing up in a southern Evangelical household. I was born a month after the timeline of AIDS officially began. I was ten when I learned more concretely about the disease in school, Magic Johnson revealed that he had contracted it, and Freddy Mercury died of it (a fact that was then only private knowledge, as it was with many others). Pop music past a certain decade was forbidden to me, so I had no idea who Mercury was, but I distinctly remember the glib contempt with which my parents spoke of “that pervert”—for how many innocent young men he must have seduced and infected. They have apologized for past remarks, and my eventual coming out and my own HIV positive status have never caused them to reject me, but one can’t wonder how it would have turned out had we been put through those revelations ten or twenty years earlier. At the least, it makes one grateful that the culture has gained a shred of compassion.

But it is only a shred, and some are as ignorant and cruel as ever. Pundit and all around villain Pat Robertson even last year said to his national 700 Club audience that gay men are using special serrated rings to transmit HIV to healthy people with handshakes. It seems that despite major advances in treatment, the stigma and use of HIV/AIDS as a political bludgeon is alive and well throughout the world, especially in Africa, where its reputation as a “gay disease” exists only where western missionaries and lobbyists have imported the idea, though the virus has never played favorites.

This proves that Angels is still relevant, but it also leads one to reflect on the clever inversions that make it so powerful and universal.

Alex Highsmith and Adam Standley in Angels in America

Alex Highsmith (Harper Pitt) and Adam Standley (Prior Walter) in Intiman Theatre’s “Angels in America.” Photo by Chris Bennion, courtesy of Intiman Theatre.

The Angels Laugh

[dropcap size=small]F[/dropcap]or those who have not seen the play or the movie based on it, it isn’t giving anything away to say that the advent of AZT (a first line of medications to combat HIV) occurs toward the end and offers some hope, but it was clear by the premiere that these medications were imperfect and some had terrible effects on the body. People were still dying, even if they could afford the medications, and conservative commentators were still declaring that they were all being smote and hellbound.

Under such circumstances, one might expect the play to be a relentless slog of horror, but in fact by staying genuine to the humanity of its complicated and tortured characters, it inverts joyless judgment into compassion and humor and makes heaven itself an ally to the afflicted. The angelic Messenger appears to one character in particular as he struggles with his illness and impending death, abandoned by friends and lovers and forced to reckon with a distinguished lineage coming to a wretched end in him. The oppressive aspects of organized religion are explored, but the underlying search for meaning and grace in moments of despair is what comes to the fore. The angels are laughing with us, not at us.

Even the oppressive politics of the era get a lot of attention. The infamous lawyer Roy Cohn was one of many allies to Joseph McCarthy (and J Edgar Hoover, one might add) whose hostility toward all things he perceived as un-American has made his name synonymous with draconic policy, abuse of power, paranoid jingoism, witch hunts and hypocrisy. That McCarthy directly ruined the lives of many gay men and women while fostering a climate of hatred toward LGBT people in general apparently did not cause any crisis of conscience with Cohn, who was gay and who eventually died of AIDS-related illnesses. In the play, he is not rehabilitated, nor is he made a complete villain. He is complex and flawed as others, in the end delirious with guilt and loathing. Cohn the man may never have come around (I do not know.), but Cohn the character is a cautionary tale of self-deception and how this is the most dangerous and deadly of flaws. As the other characters are forced to come to terms with themselves, the gulf between reality and belief, the consequences of their actions and the fragility of life, the way forward is always through honesty and empathy, and ultimately the ability to forgive oneself as much as others.

This message is true for all. Expressed poignantly through swings of melodrama and tragicomedy, genuine pathos and meditation, with a small but fully realized ensemble, the play is certainly a morality play, less a historical document than a timeless and universal lesson lodged in a very dark and recent chapter of our culture. In that chapter, there were always heroes of all walks of life who spoke truth to power, who comforted and supported the afflicted (the nurse in Angels, Belize is a fine example), who fought tirelessly for visibility that has laid the groundwork for the search for a cure and even for civil rights.

Medications allow most strains of HIV to be controlled, and one drug in particular (Truvada) is being taken as a prophylactic by HIV negative people. New treatments are being developed that may eventually eradicate the disease. And yet we must re-evaluate those earlier, not-too-distant years. Education about the disease is still pitifully spare, stigma and misunderstandings continue to abound, and outdated policies create a climate in which it is still preferable to many people to not get tested, to not know at all even if it means potentially putting others at risk. For everyone’s sake, we need to do better about this, but the play was never just activism. It is a classic because even if and when HIV/AIDS is cured, the value of its message will live on

Marya Sea Kaminski and Adam Standley in Angels in America

Marya Sea Kaminski (The Angel) and Adam Standley (Prior Walter) in Intiman Theatre’s “Angels in America.” Photo by Chris Bennion, courtesy of Intiman Theatre.

This production promises to be truly exciting. The cast and producers are savvy and sensitive, and the costumes are designed by Mark Mitchell, whose exquisite Burial exhibit at the Frye last Autumn was one of my peak experiences for the year. Mitchell himself has been positive for decades and went through a long period of self-destructive behavior, attributed at least in part to the survivor’s guilt that many gay men who lived through the crisis feel to this day. Mitchell’s Burial clothes were part of his healing process and a way of making people more comfortable with the idea of death, as this in turn creates a more complete and honest appreciation of life. That work continues in his costume design for Angels, and the artistic team (including Andrew Russell of Intiman) is to be credited for utilizing Mitchell’s unique understanding and talent. If the other decisions made in the production are even half as on point, this is bound to be one of Intiman’s best productions yet.

Angels in America Parts 1 and 2 play through September 21 at Intiman Theatre. Part 2 opens Friday, September 5. Purchase tickets on Intiman’s Web site.

T.s. Flock is a writer and arts critic based in Seattle and co-founder of Vanguard Seattle.

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