By Lora Supandi
When reading about the United States’ AIDS epidemic in history textbooks and scholarly essays, human lives are reduced to numbers. Death rates become a reflection of the bitter, yet inevitable, fate of life. However, the complexity of life, death, happiness and sorrow during the AIDS epidemic could not be embodied by a single story, let alone emotionless statistics.
Part 1 of Tony Kushner’s play, “Angels in America” (directed by Vineet Gupta ’18), embodies the multifaceted tragedies, ironies and delights of life, in the context of the AIDS epidemic; rooted beneath its tragedy is human truth. This is a raw, bittersweet story of homosexuality, desire, love, betrayal, hypocrisy, society and the brevity of life. Most of all, it is a reflection of what humans carry: light in darkness, humor in despair, spirit in sicknesses.
The play follows the intertwined storylines of many complex characters. Prior Walter (Jake Goldstein ’19), a gay man with AIDS, is abandoned by his boyfriend, Louis Ironson (Matt Smith ’21). Joe Pitt (Hamzeh Daoud ’20) must confront his sexual identity while his wife, Harper Pitt (Ali Rosenthal ’20), faces Valium-induced hallucinations and feelings of betrayal. American Attorney Roy Cohn (Noah Bennett ’19), based on the real figure, exemplifies hypocrisy and corruption when he conceals his AIDS diagnoses as liver cancer.
The tumultuous stories are filled with chaos, tragedy and melancholy, and yet, characters like Belize (Ra Bacchus ’18) bring laughter and vitality to a play about sickness and death. Belize, a nurse and former drag queen, provides hope to those around him with his sense of humor and nostalgic stories.
Every character is multifaceted, revealing how humans aren’t black and white statistics. When Louis leaves Prior, we are reminded that even the people we love the most are capable of selfish, heartless acts. Seeing the destruction of the Pitt’s marriage, as Joe struggles with his gay identity, makes the audience question the moral obligations of human beings; are societal liabilities more important than personal happiness? The character foil of Roy Cohn exposes the hypocrisy and lies of a powerful figure; his materialistic wealth and prosperity do not protect him from sickness and death.
“Angels in America” reminds us not only of the fragility of life but also of the greed and corruption in politics. The Reagan Administration’s silence and indifference during the epidemic not only stigmatized AIDS and the people it affected, but it disgraced the 650,000 Americans who would soon die from it. The government dehumanized the gay community by ignoring their misery. The characters’ emotional and physical deterioration reflects the pain of the gay community during this time period. Through the complex relationships and inner battles of “Angels in America,” we could grasp the hardships of this time period. Although the government silenced their voices, their stories lived on.
As I internalized the deep, raw emotions of this play, I couldn’t help but juxtapose the 1980s with today’s political climate. Years have passed, but inequalities still persist within marginalized communities. In addition, the struggles of self-acceptance, marriage, betrayal, and corruption still plague our society. Humans continue struggling with this burden.
The actors of this play reflected on their experiences and the wisdom they gained from this production. Alexa Luckey ’21, who played the Angel, stated, “These are social issues that are very close to many people, so portraying them through an art form brings the awareness and message to a greater audience.”
Upon reflecting on their role as Belize, Ra Bacchus vivaciously expressed, “trying to be someone else helps you discover your own identity. My personality is a performance, and that empowers me. When I move through different places, I have control over myself and how I act.” Thus, “Angels of America” transformed these actors’ perceptions of history, society and their own identities. I find that to be a remarkable, magical occurrence in the world of theater.
Contact Lora Supandi at lora24 “at” stanford.edu.