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How 2018 reshaped Angels in America

The ghost of Trump is always next to Roy Cohn in the new production of Angels in America.

Beth Malone and Andrew Garfield in Angels in America
Beth Malone and Andrew Garfield in Angels in America.
Brinkhoff & Mögenburg
Constance Grady is a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox, where since 2016 she has covered books, publishing, gender, celebrity analysis, and theater.

Angels in America Tony Kushner’s bizarrely beautiful, Pulitzer-winning gay fantasia, now nominated for 11 Tonys — is a play about the triumph of life over death, queer joy over bigoted hate, progress over reactionary politics. In the 1980s, when it was written, that meant that it was primarily concerned with the specific horror of the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s, and the lasting trauma of what it did to a generation of gay men. But in 2018, as a new production of the seven-and-a-half-hour, two-part play burns up Broadway, the trauma at its center is evolving.

Then as now, the play concerns Prior Walter, who is diagnosed with AIDS in 1985, and whose boyfriend Louis promptly abandons him to take up with a closeted gay Mormon Reaganite. Prior’s defiant fight for life in the face of despair — sometimes in the form of a literal wrestling match with an angel, like Jacob fighting for his blessing — is the heart of the play’s two parts. Powerful reactionaries like the HIV-positive and wildly homophobic lawyer Roy Cohn (a real-life historical figure) may lurk balefully in the shadows, but Prior’s ecstatic, redemptive blessing to the audience — “I bless you: More Life.” — gets the last word.

The AIDS epidemic is still in the show and still an active and vital part about how it thinks about the world — but in the new production, directed by Marianne Elliott, the plague that threatens the world is populist nationalism. And Roy Cohn — the bigoted and bullying lawyer who died a horrible death, who was Trump’s mentor, who taught Trump how to fight dirty in the courtroom — is the first horseman of the Apocalypse.

“Stop moving” means something specific in 2018

Amanda Lawrence in Angels in America Helen Maybanks

Halfway through Perestroika, the second of Angels’ two plays, the titular Angel delivers her furious, reactionary epistle to Prior.

She knows what has brought suffering to humanity, she says, and she knows how to stop it. The problem is change, and to fix it, we simply have to stop moving:


Forsake the open Road:

Neither Mix Nor Intermarry: Let Deep Roots Grow:

If you do not MINGLE you will Cease to Progress.

Kushner calls this speech the anti-migratory epistle, and in The World Only Spins Forward, the new oral history of Angels from Isaac Butler and Dan Kois, he says that it surprised him to see how it played in a post-Trump, post-Brexit world.

“It absolutely hadn’t occurred to me how different something called ‘the anti-migratory epistle’ was going to sound,” he says. “I mean, I just have not thought, with all the endless talk of the travel bans and stuff, that suddenly there’s gonna be huge impact when those words are spoken. ‘Stop moving,’ specifically about not migrating.”

In the late ’80s, the Angel’s epistle served two functions: Emotionally, it was the anguished cry of Prior, who wanted the world to stop changing, to go back to the time before he had AIDS and his boyfriend left him. And politically, it stood for a reactionary culture that did not want to accept gay people, that wanted to leave them to die of a horrific plague.

But in 2018, with panic over Trump’s travel bans in full effect, the anti-migratory epistle resonates differently. It’s no longer just the outcry of a culture that wants to turn back the clock so that it can pretend that gay people do not exist. Now, it’s the outcry of a culture that wants to Make America Great Again, to turn back the clock so that no one outside a monolith can exist within its borders: not gay people, and not black and brown people either.

“This whole anti-migratory kind of thing is just fantastic to say,” Amanda Lawrence, who plays the Angel in the current Broadway production, says in The World Only Spins Forward. “Marianne [Elliott, the director] said in rehearsal, ‘The Angel and Roy Cohn are very similar. This disgust, this racism, this disgust.’”

And it’s via Roy Cohn that the shadow of Trumpism looms largest.

Roy Cohn was Trump’s mentor. In his speeches, there are echoes of Trumpism.

Nathan Lane and Nathan Stewart-Jarrett in Angels in America Brinkhoff & Mögenburg

Roy Cohn, who shares with the Angel and with Trump himself a certain fastidious disgust at the idea of intermingling, was in the ’80s a signifier of violent, hypocritical homophobia.

Cohn was instrumental in creating the Lavender Scare, the campaign to fire every employee of the federal government who was found to be gay, even as he himself lived in the closet. He died of AIDS in 1986, maintaining to his last that he was actually sick with liver cancer. “Roy Cohn is not a homosexual,” he tells his doctor in Angels. “Roy Cohn is a heterosexual man, Henry, who fucks around with guys.”

Roy Cohn is still a signifier of violent, hypocritical homophobia in 2018, but he is most remembered now for his time as Donald Trump’s lawyer and mentor. Cohn signed on as Trump’s lawyer when he was being sued by the Department of Justice for racist housing policies, and over the course of their relationship he would teach Trump how to work the press, how to fudge the question of his net worth, and how to use government connections for his personal gain. “He’s been vicious to others in his protection of me,” said Trump of Cohn in 1980.

In 2018’s production of Angels, Roy’s viciousness, his casual racism, the self-satisfaction he displays at his own corruption, have shivering and uneasy resonances. “Was it legal?” he says, of his involvement in the Rosenberg trial. “Fuck legal. Am I a nice man? Fuck nice. They say terrible things about me in The Nation. Fuck The Nation. You want to be Nice, or you want to be Effective? Make the law, or subject to it. Choose.” It’s a speech that sounds eerily like something that could have come out of Trump’s mouth.

And Roy’s vision of hell — a world of “big dance palaces full of music and lights and racial impurity and gender confusion,” where “all the deities are creole, mulatto, brown as the mouths of rivers,” and “race, taste and history [are] finally overcome” — is a globalist, cosmopolitan heaven. It reads like an elaborate version of the “this is the future liberals want” meme, and it’s the world that both Roy and today’s populist nationalists work tirelessly to prevent.

“I feel like we are in a bizarro Part 3 of Angels in America,” actress Jennifer Engstrom says in The World Only Spins Forward, “and the ghost of Roy Cohn is sweetly caressing the nuts of an American president who rides naked on horseback with Vladimir Putin.”

But Angels is still, ultimately, a hopeful play. “The play doesn’t describe a time of great triumph, it describes a time of great terror, beneath the surface of which the seeds of change are beginning to push upwards and through,” says Kushner in The World Only Spins Forward. “Apparently, nothing good is happening, but good things are happening.”

At the end of Perestroika, Prior demands “More Life,” and is able to live with his AIDS. He refuses to stand still. In 2018, as in the late ’80s, the world spins forward, and reactionaries are unable to turn the clock back.

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