The Second Coming
Hirshman, Linda, Newsweek
Byline: Linda Hirshman
'Angels in America' hit Broadway so hard in 1993, it left the theater world stunned. In our gay-friendlier times, the play can't possibly have the same impact, can it?
When the revival of Angels in America was announced a few months ago, there was talk of it being an artifact from a remote and different time. After all, AIDS isn't a death sentence any longer, and gay rights have progressed to the point where playwright Tony Kushner's own wedding, in 2003, was the first gay ceremony officially announced by The New York Times. But that was then, before two young men brutally beat a gay patron in the bathroom at -- the Stonewall Inn. Before Rutgers freshman Tyler Clementi jumped off the George Washington Bridge amid an alarming number of gay suicides. Before a New York gubernatorial candidate said that children were being "brainwashed" into thinking that homosexuality was an "equally valid and successful option" and before the back-and-forth over "don't ask, don't tell" portended a robust conservatism poised to dominate the next election. Angels may one day be a classic like A Doll's House--still relevant, although much of the political message is old news--but not yet. On every level, Angels has work left to do.
It's easy to forget, 17 years after its Broadway debut, how much weight the play has already carried. Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes (the full title) arrived in New York at a time when AIDS was still a dirty acronym--1993 was the year the House of Representatives barred HIV-positive people from entering the country. Angels was suffused with issues both universal and particular to gay life during the plague years. The four gay male characters (a closeted Mormon, a liberal Jew, his AIDS-infected lover, and a militant black nurse) fairly shout the political lesson that gay men come in every recognizable human form. Together, they confront questions such as: What does a healthy partner owe a sick one? What does a homosexual husband owe his wife? At the most abstract level, what is the value of forgiveness? Not just should the abandoned sick man forgive his faithless lover, but should Ethel Rosenberg bless Roy Cohn (who are also characters in the play), and should God forgive his errant human creations? The culture critic Daniel Mendelsohn described the reception of Angels, which won the Pulitzer Prize, as actual "relief"--finally, someone was saying something about AIDS and the American body politic epic enough to suit the subject.
Yet the praise and the prizes did not shield Angels on its flight. Kushner has a thick folder reflecting the play's political impact, including the campaigns to censor it. A dean at Catholic University in Washington banned the play from campus and compared putting on Angels at a Catholic institution to Nazis staging a play in Israel. (When Kushner got wind of the dean's comments, he sent the college administrator a picture of his relatives who were killed by the Nazis. The dean did not write back.) Fundamentalist preacher Rev. Joseph Chambers organized a campaign to stop Angels from opening in Charlotte, N.C., in 1996. Charlotte Rep had just put on a production of Falsettos, a musical about a married man who discovers he is gay, without protest. But Angels--packed full of explicit argument and implicit lessons about American politics in general and gay American politics in particular--was a different story.
Public officials in Charlotte threatened to jail the actors in Angels, and the management at the publicly owned theater told the company it would cancel its access to the building. Finally, a state judge ordered the show to go on. …