Angels in America by Tony Kushner is a revered American drama first performed in 1994. Running at eight hours over two nights, it’s an epic mythologisation of the HIV/AIDS crisis in New York as it erupted in the 1980s and went on to kill hundreds of thousands of people. Now a revival of the play is on at fortyfivedownstairs directed by Gary Abrahams, who is bringing his perspective as a queer Jewish director to reflect on the story. In 2017 life for people living with HIV is very different, and in fact a problem many HIV-positive people face now is the stigmatisation, misinformation and horror surrounding the disease. In this context, Kushner’s religious-apocalyptic language of catastrophe to describe the spread of the syndrome can seem a little dated. Nonetheless, the work persists as both an important document in queer history, and its sheer thematic and artistic ambition is inspiring and revitalising in a time of polarising politics surrounding nonconforming relationships and gender identities.
Before I go on, I’ll mention that I think I had a close-to-unique experience of the work, entering the theatre without prior research to discover that the content of the show related to me more than I could have expected. Religion plays an important role in the show – many characters are Jewish, which I anticipated, some are not religious, and several characters are Mormon, which happens to be the church I was raised in. As a queer person myself, I was stunned to see a Mormon man onstage in a narrative about his struggle with his own sexuality, conflict with his mother, and existential crisis as he renegotiates the meaning of his life. But I was even more shocked to see that highly specific Mormon historical stories and cosmological beliefs were in fact woven into the very fabric of the show, which featured appearances of angels, scenes set in Heaven, numerous speculations on the nature of God, and acts of prophecy. I won’t list them, but there were many details in the play that I couldn’t help but latch on to, seeming to speak directly to me in a way that left me floored and dizzied. It’s perhaps not an ideal position to be reviewing a play from, but hopefully it’s an interesting one.
The play was by no means no means limited to discussing matters relating to Mormonism. Jewish cosmology and culture plays an equally significant role, if not more simply due to the prevalence of Jewish culture in New York. It might interest readers to know that Mormonism and Judaism, both with around 13 million followers globally, actually have intertwined histories. In fact, in 1841, a Mormon leader travelled to the Holy Land, what later became Israel, and presciently ‘consecrated’ the land for the return of the twelve tribes of Israel, who had been scattered across the earth – namely, Jewish people. Furthermore, while not to equate Judaism with Zionism, both Mormons and Jews have a significant history of mass migration in pursuit of their respective ‘Zion’s – for Mormons, it was in Jackson County, Missouri, but conflict with locals led to another arduous Exodus, before they finally settled in what is now Salt Lake City, Utah. These contexts help unpack some of the more obscure themes of the play – migration, for one.
Explicit political machinations are also intertwined in the narrative, which reaches back through history to expose the lineage of conservatism that stretched from the Red Scare to the Reagan era when the play is set. In particular, the play heavily features a fictionalised Roy Cohn (played by Brian Lipson), a legal attorney who worked with Joseph McCarthy in the ‘50s, aggressively interrogating and convicting suspected communists and (as is less known) closeted homosexuals in public office, who were framed as being vulnerable to manipulation by overseas communists, threatening to announce their identity if they didn’t hand over government secrets. This fear led to President Eisenhower banning homosexuals from being employed at a federal level. Ironically, Cohn himself had secrets about his own sexuality that were widely speculated upon as he ultimately died of AIDS in 1986. Angels in America follows his story from shortly before his diagnosis, then portraying him as his health declines, haunted by the ghost of the ‘50s communist spy Ethel Rosenberg, whose arguably wrongful execution he was partly responsible for. Cohn was nonetheless also involved in Reagan’s election and as a legal attorney also represented Rupert Murdoch as well as Donald Trump in the 1970s when his apartment buildings were accused of arbitrarily denying tenancy and vacancy to black people. Roy Cohn is obviously fascinating and abhorrent. There is a lot to be said about him and the connection of his work to both past and present conservative politics helps render Angels in America a surprisingly relevant work in 2017. The play is a useful (and heavy) reminder that our current-day problems have a deep and living history; that conservative agendas remain entrenched in many institutions and that many of the initial orchestrators of neoliberal capitalism are in fact still in power, and also that homophobia and racism are deeply connected with those agendas.
On the play text itself I will finally say that there is an interest in history, fantasy and the experience of time that in a way brings all these themes together. The central story is about Prior Walter (Grant Cartwright), who is diagnosed with AIDS, and his partner Louis Ironson (Simon Corfield), who makes the conflicted decision to leave Prior as he is slowly dying. The two live separately, with Prior struggling with existential questions about the purpose of his life, shortened dramatically by AIDS. The ruminations bring to mind Jack Halberstam’s 2005 critical writing on ‘queer temporality’: the idea that AIDS inspired a new philosophy of living among many queer people that de-emphasised traditional values of longevity, family lineage, domesticity and procreation, instead looking to think of life as a brief and glorious spark, deep pleasures and pains that might total something as or even more meaningful than a long heterosexual life. In a time of such crisis, we can understand the need for a philosophy to justify the deep existential risk of coming out of the closet at all.
Halberstam, citing black authors such as Robert Reid-Pharr and Cathy Cohen, might remind us that these claims to a unified queer experience or philosophy are often made by white men on behalf of everyone else, and such grand and cosmic notions are more limited than we might think. Angels in America has a cast of eight and is written such that one of the actors is black, while the rest are white and/or Jewish. Dushan Philips plays Belize, Prior’s close friend, a nurse, and a former drag queen, and at one point he and Louis have an extended discussion about race and racial politics. The moment is kind of like a scene by which the playwright acknowledges the limitations of the play in terms of its scope, acknowledges that the perspective being offered is overwhelmingly one of a privileged white man, and in this moment Louis looks like a kind of guilty author-cipher. I think the play text could do better to emphasise that HIV/AIDS disproportionately affected and continues to affect black people in America, and that while a white person’s perspective on the issue is not at all meaningless, we should remember that there are many other dimensions to the story.
Now I’ll write about Abrahams’ 2017 production itself. Firstly I want to thank him and the producer, Cameron Lukey for taking on the task of the show: as an artist and a queer ex-Mormon I am really grateful to have had the chance to see it. Not only are its explorations of the esoteric links between religion, capitalism and sexuality really profound, but the experience of the show was close to a religious experience in itself (as you might hope for in an eight hour show). There’s something special about leaving the theatre after part one, in this kind of stunned suspense, before returning the next night to see the same people in the audience and finish the epic tale off. To watch the cast and crew undertake that mammoth task is spectacular. I also had an overwhelming feeling of being somehow transported, perhaps to some nostalgic 1990s New York experimental warehouse theatre, a credit to the beautiful stage and lighting design. Dann Barber’s visual conceit of the white curtains that surround the space, to be lifted up by ropes to reveal a certain scene, then with a jolt dropped back down again, was delightfully transparent about its theatrical mechanics, yet gently also brought the sense of being a kind of interdimensional, heavenly time-traveller as we moved effortlessly through different spaces. Keeping with the script’s directions, the set and props that came on were simple, authentic and effective, and Barber’s ‘80s costumes were really on point. Rob Sowinski and Bryn Cullen’s lighting design was gorgeously nostalgic, visibly populating the rig with enormous vintage fixtures and rusty old fluorescent batten fittings that flickered in supernatural moments. As a bit of a lighting nerd there were a few very covertly high-tech things about the design that blew me away – suffice it to say that it wouldn’t have been possible in the 90s but it does the work so much justice. Sound by Russell Goldsmith was also of a high calibre, with soulful sonic textures that I often didn’t notice but very certainly felt.
As for the cast, Brian Lipson as Roy Cohn is truly a theatrical treasure and his talents always astound me. Cohn was simultaneously terrifying, hilarious and empathetic, with an emotional agility like Jack Nicholson, reminding me a little bit of Donald Trump. I sometimes struggled with Emily Goddard’s performance, even while she showed similarly impressive range playing Harper. Harper seemed like the most difficult character to play, someone whose internal experience is markedly different from what she looks like from the outside, as we see onstage in psychological fantasies. Goddard approached Harper as a vulnerable, innocent girl who was struggling to make sense of a confusing world, but it was hard to empathise with her on a deeper level. That said, her emotional energy was fierce and sometimes a little creepy, and the play was better off with her intense presence. I couldn’t help but think upon seeing Caleb Alloway as Joe Pitt that he couldn’t look or sound more Mormon, almost to a fault, and Simon Corfield inhabited Louis with similar comfortability. Margaret Mills was a pleasure to watch as the Angel, giving a surprisingly sensual performance in that and many other roles. Dushan Philips was also wonderful as Belize, bringing a very deliberate and often hilarious honesty. Finally, Helen Morse was excellent, playing a series of very interesting characters including Ethel Rosenberg, Joe’s mother Hannah Pitt, an elderly orthodox Rabbi and ‘The World’s Oldest Living Bolshevik’. There was so much compassion, cheekiness and gusto in her presence.
Abrahams can only be commended for wrangling this enormity into a touching and emboldening theatre experience. I sometimes felt myself wanting a little more invention, something really left-of-field to give this incredibly neat and sometimes self-congratulatory postmodern work a bit of fresh air. Nonetheless, there were moments of true revelation, and the space was permeated with a love for theatre that really cannot be faked. This monumental production is really very special and the privilege of seeing it live is not one to be passed up.