Angels in a Changed America

From HBO to Off-Broadway: Tony Kushner's Epic Theater of Identity

If Angels is a drama about change, change has fucked with the play in unforeseen ways. We've become accustomed to the face of ambiguity; it's the hallmark of upscale entertainment and a specialty of HBO. With its flights of magic realism, Angels fits snugly in the pay-cable repertoire alongside Six Feet Under and Carnivàle. In the wake of Showtime's Queer as Folk, Kushner's bold depiction of homosex feels like something Mike Nichols would otherwise have had to invent to hold an audience that doesn't think it's experiencing modern drama unless the male leads kiss. That once forbidden, now expected homo moment is an emblem of what has changed.

The category of the sodomite is still a social necessity, as the ferocious battle over gay marriage attests. But in liberal America, the status of gays has changed. It's possible to lead a decent life as a friend of Dorothy or a sister of Sappho as long as you're white and well-off, and you act like a regular Dick or Jane. (Everyone else better be entertaining.) This new situation has altered the meaning of the words gay and queer. The former now refers to a sexual orientation; the latter is a social position, a place at the margin as opposed to at the table. Where you sit depends on more than who you shtup.

Angels was one of the first popular plays to draw a connection between race, gender, and sexuality. It took the new identity politics incubating in the academy and brought it to Broadway. At the same time, it performed a critique of identity politics by portraying the complexities and multiplicities that come with simply existing. Angels anticipated the attitude that would emerge from the shadow of AIDS, as it became clear that deviance from the norm is the true basis of a queer identity. By now, that concept has expanded beyond homosexuality. Any woman whose libido violates the expectations of her gender can consider herself queer. Then there's the increasingly porous boundary of race, a subject Wolfe's productions at the Public often address. "There's a whole new conversation out there," he says, "a new crop of people who don't consider themselves black or white." Are they queer? It depends on what that is.

The Angel has eight vaginas and the means to use them, even on the dying gay man she transforms into a prophet.
photo: Anna Barry-Jester
The Angel has eight vaginas and the means to use them, even on the dying gay man she transforms into a prophet.

If this isn't enough to bust your balls, queer is also a verb. To queer something is to mess with its assumptions. Let Kushner elaborate: "Queering is a critique of the homogeneity that works menacingly within the heart of liberalism. The thing that makes liberalism fascism in slow motion is its sense of coherence—and queering is there to say, a lot is being given up in this process and these things must be articulated, explored, recovered. The queer project is about digging and digging and finding those moments that the liberal project can't afford to admit."

But the liberal project is a hungry beast. It gobbles up dissent like Bill Clinton at Mickey D's, and it can easily digest the radical vision of a decade ago. The image of white gay men struggling to survive is a bit overripe these days. It's apparent now that every character in Angels (and probably in the audience) is what the prophet calls them in his final speech: "fabulous." And most people who die of AIDS these days aren't fabulous. The play's power now resides in its astounding theatricality and philosophical reach, but to the extent that it's "a gay fantasia on national themes," as Kushner dubbed the original, Angels feels like what it wasn't in 1993: a memory play.

"I'm a playwright," says Kushner, "not a theorist."
photo: Sylvia Plachy
Since his big breakthrough, Kushner has written several dramas that will never be optioned by Rosie O'Donnell. "I love it that fans of Angels in America had to suffer through a three-and-a-half hour play about Afghanistan," he snorts. He's thinking of a wonderful, thorny piece called Homebody/Kabul that will be revived at BAM next spring. Kushner's current opus is even more unexpected: a sung-through musical scored by Jeanine Tesori and written almost entirely in verse. It's set in the fall of 1963, when the civil rights movement surged toward power—and when everything orderly exploded along with John F. Kennedy's skull. "It was a tinderbox moment," Kushner says, "an epistemological break. Suddenly there was something new." Hence the title: Caroline, or Change.

But those words have a double meaning. Change also refers to the petty cash a Jewish family living in Louisiana doles out to its black maid (powerfully played by Tonya Pinkins). In order to teach the young boy of the house not to leave change in his pockets, the family allows Caroline to take whatever she finds there. For her, these throwaway coins mean dental work or clothes for her three children, and the pain of scrounging for white people's leavings leads to a horrifying confrontation, when Caroline turns on the eight-year-old who is deeply attached to her—and grieving for his dead mother. Answering his impetuously racist outburst, she tells him that all Jews burn in hell.

Unlike Kushner's other plays, this one is loosely autobiographical. He did grow up Jewish in Louisiana, and though his mother didn't die during his childhood she struggled with breast cancer. Like the boy in Caroline, Kushner was drawn to the family maid. "She had one remarkable characteristic: She didn't smile a lot and she wasn't nice like other people's maids. I loved her and she loved us, it turns out now." But love is warped by stigma, and in the '60s the racial order positioned Southern Jews and blacks in an uneasy hierarchy: the not-quite-white just above the never-to-be. These two spoiled identities produced a certain solidarity along with a special hostility. The conflict was shaped not just by religion and race but by money. "These are tenuous but affectionate relationships that become almost unworkable when money is introduced," says Kushner. "It's the Moby Dick moment when they nail the doubloon to the mast and everything changes."

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