Ordinary People in America
Emma Thompson in HBO’s Miniseries production of Angels in America
Tony Kushner published Angels in America in 1993 and won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama that same year. Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes is comprised of two, independent parts entitled Millennium Approaches and Perestrokia. The play presented a turning point in American Drama with its unfiltered approach to saltier brands of gay, religious mental illness, racial, AIDS, and political themes. The play’s seven hour plot surrounds the lives of individuals of varied sexual orientation, physical and mental health, religious commitments, and political preferences set in 1980’s New York. Though this epic cultural reflection has evolved into one of the most criticized, commented on, and conferred upon play on the American stage since the 1950’s for its revolutionary approach to the aforementioned themes, Kushner’s primary themes is actually the conflict between stasis and change.
From the first scene of the play, the opposition between stasis and change is the favored theme. In a world filled with the despair found in the Democratic community of the Reagan area, the desire to halt change, preserve the past, and ignore or suppress the future was a natural human reaction. Kushner implies that our democracy and our national politics must resist this reactive impulse to change and move forward into a new era. Rather than seeking a haven in an idealized 1950s past, America needs to embrace even those changes that frighten some people; especially the growth of a politically active and culturally accepted gay and lesbian minority. This static impulse is voiced by Rabbi Chemelwitz, Emily the nurse, Sister Ella Chapter, and most obviously by the Angels. The Angel chooses the dying Prior as her prophet order him to make humanity stop its ceaseless motion. But as the events and situations of the play make the idea abundantly clear, that desire is literally reactionary, destructive, and at odds with the progressive values of the play. Migration, which brought Prior’s family to America, Belize’s slave ancestors, Louis’s immigrant ones, and which carried the Mormons across the continent to Utah, is an inevitable and inerasable human drive. Joe intends to forward his career by moving to Washington, Hannah moves to New York to save her son from his homosexuality, and Louis attempts to leave Prior to return to a sense of stability. The opposing factor here is Harper, armed with her self-inflicted drug delusions who wishes to escape from her reality. She is the character who takes the largest stride from stasis and changes into an entirely new person, her own person.
Kushner embraced the idea of an importance to humans of an idea of stasis, but he also encouraged a need for change, to improve oneself, a community, a nation, and a world. He applied little sense to form and integrated a system of overlapping scenes, simultaneous dialogue, and multi-dimensional settings. Though Kushner made incredible strides in promoting gay drama and other “unsavory” topics he largely maintained a sense of truth and simplicity. It is simply a story about a group of people trying to make sense of the world – an age old quest pursued by nearly every human being to have ever lived and breathed on the earth. Angels in America is not merely another “gay with AIDS” play that circulated through the late 20th Century, rather it’s a potent drama that addresses and age-old, yet era-specific question from thousands of people who lived a hard reality and asked what it meant to be part of a community that rejected them, yet looked toward a future of change and stasis.