Angels in America
Millennium Approaches, Act Three, Scenes 1–4
(Act Three is subtitled "Not-Yet-Conscious, Forward Dawning")
A sleeping Prior is awakened by a man dressed as a 13th-century British squire. After the initial shock, the man tells him that his name is also Prior Walter—he is an ancestor, the fifth to carry the name (the modern Prior corrects him, telling him that he is the thirty-fourth). The man, whom the play designates as Prior I, tells him that he, too, died in a plague even worse than AIDS, the Black Death of the 1200s. Then a second ghost-ancestor appears—Prior II, an elegant Londoner, who died in the plague outbreak of the 1660s. The two ghosts tell Prior they have been sent to prepare the way for the unseen messenger. They chant a mysterious chorus in Hebrew and English, similar to the voice's repeated refrain.
The scene opens with Louis and Belize debating politics in a coffee shop. Across the stage, Prior lies helpless in his hospital bed. Louis delivers a lengthy monologue on democracy, liberalism and race. It is hilariously wordy, ambivalent and contradictory: he grandly proclaims the success of democracy in America, then immediately spews out a host of exceptions and counter-arguments; a moment later, he insists that the United States has no monolithic, dominant culture, until Belize acidly points out that the monolith of straight white men is "not unimpressive." Finally Belize cracks, and calls Louis on his passive- aggressive, borderline-racist liberalism. Hurt, Louis claims that Belize hates him because he is Jewish. Their comical bickering continues, but the subject inevitably turns to Prior.
Across the stage, Prior lists the progress of his symptoms for Emily. In the middle of her reply, Prior begins hearing her words in Hebrew, but when he questions her about it, she does not know what he is talking about. Then, in a blaze of light, a flaming book with a Hebrew aleph on its pages rises from the floor. Prior is terrified but Emily cannot see it. Prior flees. Meanwhile, a suddenly serious Louis begs for Belize's help and asks him to tell Prior he loves him. Belize tries to be sympathetic but tells him he cannot help him. As he leaves, snow begins to fall.
Mr. Lies takes Harper, dressed in a snowsuit, to a snowy wonderland she believes is Antarctica. She wants to stay in her fantasy forever, but Mr. Lies tells her it cannot last. He also points out that she invented her pregnancy, but Harper replies that her entire fantasy is imaginary. She finds an "Eskimo" who she hopes will be her companion.
In the wasteland of the South Bronx, Hannah, newly arrived in New York, asks a homeless woman for directions, but the woman is deranged—she talks nonsense and screams at no one. Hannah grows angry and finally shouts at the woman to pull herself together. To Hannah's surprise, the woman manages to tell her the location of the Mormon Visitor's Center in Manhattan, where she often goes for shelter.
Louis and Belize's political argument is useful for understanding Louis's character and the characters' attitude towards identity politics and race. Louis is a stereotypical example of a white, Jewish liberal, who is appalled by the conservative views of someone like Joe—not to mention the Reagan administration—but is flat-footed and insensitive when it comes to race. He holds a persistently optimistic view of America: he believes that power really has been decentralized by radical democracy, that America is different from and better than any other nation and that racism can be overcome. Unfortunately, he readily admits a host of exceptions to his sweeping statements, and he is incredibly naive, as Belize's dry interjections make clear. That naiveté stems from his inability to consider others' points of view. Louis shouts, "Fuck assimilation," not realizing that as an already- assimilated white man he has little or nothing at stake in proclaiming a separatist agenda; he condemns liberal, "bourgeois tolerance" when it is exactly what he espouses, and he sees anti-Semitism everywhere, to the brink of paranoia, while appearing to minimize the lingering residue of racism. This speech is a comical illustration of Louis's character—his perpetual ambivalence, guilt and self-centeredness as well as his optimism and generous tolerance.
It is also directed at the audience, the overwhelming majority of whom are probably well-off white liberals like Louis. Straight audience-goers congratulating themselves for their tolerance at going to see a "gay play" will find Belize's retorts striking close to home. The speech also helps to answer two possible objections that critics from the left might raise. First, there is the idea that Kushner's politics of solidarity tend to obscure the real differences between different classes of people. The play encourages people of all backgrounds to join together in common struggle, but might end up convincing wealthy whites (especially Jews like Louis) that they are as deeply oppressed as a working-class, black gay man like Belize. Belize reminds us that even within the coalition of the left, some kinds of oppression, particularly economic and racial ones, still cut very deeply. Secondly, Belize's anger helps defuse the criticism that the play focuses too much on a middle-class, white gay perspective. Some critics have complained that the play's main black character is a stereotypical nurse with little background or personal history, who is not distinguished as an individual but only speaks as a representative for an oppressed class, who spends all his time attending to the problems of his white friends. But this scene proves that Belize is unwilling to be consumed altogether by the white world—he is no motherly mammy figure. He is a proud, intelligent black man.
The scene also proposes an interesting parallel between race and AIDS infection. Belize retells a novel called In Love with the Night Mysterious, about a white woman named Margaret and her slave lover Thaddeus in the years before the Civil War. Thaddeus does not accept Margaret's idea that real love is not ambivalent, and we can imagine, as he likely does, that the couple will not remain together once the war is over. As sincerely as Margaret may love Thaddeus, her pie-eyed romanticism is absurd, because the reassertion of racism after the war will inevitably drive them apart. In this way, she resembles Louis, who loves Prior but whose love is not powerful enough to overcome the tremendous divisive power of AIDS. Louis understands the link, since his first question after Belize stops speaking is about Prior's condition. As critic Framji Minwalla points out, the K.S. lesions on Prior's body makes AIDS an "unerasable biological stigma"—he can no more pass as "normal" than Belize can. Just as race separates Louis from the Jamaican man in Britain despite the unifying force of their common sexual orientation, AIDS keeps Louis and Prior apart, subjects Prior and Roy to prejudice and disenfranchisement even within the gay community. While solidarity may be an ideal, it cannot be achieved solely by the power of an idealized gay brotherhood.
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