The opening of amfAR’s digital The Great Work Begins: Scenes from Angels in America, which premiered on Broadway.com’s YouTube channel on October 8th, places the memory of the AIDS pandemic at its worst alongside now all too familiar images from 2020’s battle with COVID-19. The opener is a stark and sobering reminder of an obvious and terrifying parallel that has haunted anyone with any memory or connection to the AIDS pandemic, since the spring. For New Yorkers particularly probably, that feeling of being at the worst kind of epicentre for the second time in half a century, is not lost. And the montage is an important reminder of the context in which we view this version of Tony Kushner’s play, as is the prologue which tells us this version of the play was made by the performers, in isolation in their own homes. For anyone who remembers the AIDS crisis, and more broadly for anyone from the theatre community, that element hits hard. Because this play, and many like it which addressed AIDS were made as a response to the crisis, they were made as a community response, and they demanded a community audience. During the AIDS crisis people gathered, both in mourning and in protest, first at protests and rallies with the likes of ACT UP, but also at vigils, and performances. Theatre was such a powerful tool for response in the AIDS crisis. It allowed for fundraising, for activism, and collective mourning. And that theatre, that act of communal experience, communal activism and mourning, is denied to us in the time of COVID-19 is for many one of the harder elements to bear.
But it’s also a very Angels-eque element to persevere anyway. As Prior says to the Angels, ‘I don’t know if it’s braver to die’ and maybe it might be braver to just give up and wait it out. But theatre isn’t inclined to that any more than Prior is inclined to give in. And so, this play is created anew.
So much of Angels feels prescient, and urgent again in 2020. So many scenes seem to scream with their relevance. Others not included here that immediately spring to mind are Louis’ political ramblings, that feel like the Twitter threads or think-pieces we’re all overwhelmed with; well intentioned, stemming from a place of grief and confusion, ultimately useless. Or any of the scenes where the couples, Prior and Louis, or Harper and Joe, start to come unravelled while cooped up together in tiny New York apartments all slightly trapped by something. That’s not a difficult metaphor to see. Or Roy Cohn, holding court and talking about who ‘picks up the phone’ when he calls. Even since this was broadcast, the ability of Trump’s former lawyer to get drugs nobody else can in Kushner’s play is frighteningly real.
And Angels is a political play. But it’s also a philosophical one. And 2020 has likely made us all somewhat more philosophical. In selecting these extracts, director Ellie Heyman gives a highlights reel of Kushner’s philosophical thinking, as well as yes, his observations on America and on illness.
As the preamble says, Angels is complicated. In more ways than one. It’s a complicated plot—ranging over 7 hours as it does—but it’s also complicated in its ever-shifting relationship with the political, and philosophical moment. It’s the reason the play feels so current some 25 years later, even without the backdrop of a global pandemic. And in selecting these scenes, Heyman gives an audience a way in, a way to find ‘their’ Angels. Perhaps in the moment you need to hear Prior’s lament on losing your mind in isolation. Or feel Belize’s rage and systemic inequality directed at Roy Cohn. To empathise with Prior’s succumbing to illness in body and mind. To hear the Angel’s philosophising and question it. Or to hear Harper and Prior’s final monologues, spin us forward and give us hope.
‘Am I making sense?’
‘Given the circumstances yes…’
Prior and Harper’s celestial meeting seems the perfect opener for the uninitiated to Angels and the perfect 2020 way into the play. The feeling of Harper and Prior at this moment in the play, trapped in isolation talking to the air, or imaginary friends. It’s a perfect introduction to the world of the play, infused with magical whimsical elements, but with a lot going on underneath. Andrew Rannells and Vella Lovell create that perfect balance of heartbreak and whimsy, and this scene speaks to our ‘holding it together’ home alone in 2020. Prior applying ‘the face’ to cheer himself up and lamenting, ‘You know you’ve hit rock bottom when even drag is a drag’ feels like the aftermath of every Lockdown Zoom social event…making an effort felt important, but ultimately wishing you’d stayed in your pyjamas. Rannells and Lovell are a great Prior and Harper match; his is slightly embittered and angry, hers filled with a wide-eyed wonder that balances his out. Harper and Prior are always two sides of the same coin and their energy, even filmed in isolation feels like these old familiar characters are home again.
What the format of the digital production also allows is a playing with form that isn’t possible on stage. The Angel is always troublesome to stage, do you give the audience what they expect: angelic Angel, blonde haired and white winged flying in? Or do you defy expectations, similar to Marianne Elliott’s National Theatre/Broadway revival and offer something different? Elliott’s Angel leaned into the theatrical form with puppetry, Heyman’s leans into the digital form, with a multi formed digitally layered angel played simultaneously by Patti LuPone, Linda Emond, Nikki M. James and Daphne Rubin-Vega. Appearing as just faces, edited overlapping performances gives the angel a true ethereal quality and results in a totally new interpretation of this being who isn’t human, who has multiple genders, identities and personalities. And seeing the four performers at once interpret Kushner’s words adds layers to the already rich text.
The beauty of this format is also getting so many interpretations of the characters back to back. Paul Dano’s Prior follows Rannell’s scene offering a new perspective on Prior. It works too as it’s from a far different point in the play. With Prior now feeling the effects of his illness and looking like ‘Mortica Addams’ and ‘the wrath of God’ respectively as Belize (Larry Owens) and then Prior observes. It’s a scene fuelled with anger and bitterness from Prior. And when he laments, ‘So I’m crazy, the whole world is why not me?’ it feels like an incredibly current observation. Woven into this scene Belize’s observations about the Angel’s malevolent anti-migratory sentiment noting ‘some of us didn’t exactly choose to migrate’ again feels politically pertinent. But it’s Prior’s other statement, which is the perfect illustration of the power of the play, and its power in 2020:
‘It’s 1986, and there’s a plague and half my friends are dead, and I’m only thirty.’
Which cuts to the core of what was once a memory associated with the time of Kushner’s play, but now is worryingly, terrifyingly current.
In between the scenes from the play are important segments of information, and of course reminders to donate. But these informational elements offer an important education, what we might learn from the fight against HIV/AIDS and what we might learn from those who have been fighting that battle for three decades.
The language of ‘fight’ and ‘battle’ don’t sit right in terms of illness itself. It implies a ‘winning’ and ‘losing’ mentality which isn’t helpful in terms of illness, recovery and loss. What ‘fight’ in the case of HIV/AIDS, and now COVID-19 refers to however is the political battles that surround both of those pandemics. As time has gone on, much like with AIDS what has become more apparent, more pressing, is that this too is a political epidemic. All illness is political in its own way, the systemic inequality of our world unfortunately makes it so. But some diseases are more political than others. And COVID-19 quickly became the most political of battlegrounds. We have watched as our leaders have failed us repeatedly in healthcare, in social care and social responsibility.
Whoopi Goldberg, who hosts the first of the three informational segments, begins by saying ‘let me give you a little history to start’ before outlining some of the history of the AIDS pandemic. Saying ‘some people tried to use that illness to spread bigotry and hatred’ and that ‘the government failed massively and disgracefully in its reasonability to promote science and protect public health,’; outlining the work of scientists, and activists, including Elizabeth Taylor ‘oh, yes that Elizabeth Taylor’ and the history of amfAR. This message is vital to include, as part of a history lesson that aligns these two periods. But also, as a message for what can be learned. As Goldberg continues ‘unlike some people, amfAR understands epidemics and pandemics require a response…’ Yes, these segments are an appeal for donations (which can be made via amfAR’s website here), but also a reminder of history and how those who fought during the AIDS crisis are using that knowledge today.
It would have been remiss in these times not to include a scene with the infamous Roy Cohn in this selection. And the gender-blind casting adds a relevant twist that actually, despite being very much a real person, Roy Cohn is also a whole kind of person, a recurring figure, and that is the lesson we should perhaps take away. Glenn Close as Cohn, and S. Epatha Mekerson as Belize. But instead of choosing one of Roy Cohns’s more political fuelled scenes, Heyman chooses the scene where Roy, close to death, talks about Heaven with Belize. A complicated, difficult scene in which Belize faces up to his hatred for Roy and what he stands for, his desire for his demise to get the pills only Roy has, and his duty as a nurse and caregiver. In Roy, audiences are asked the same questions as Belize: how do you find empathy for the enemy? Do we feel sorry for a dying man even if he is opposed to everything we stand for? Casting as women, the traditional caregivers, who were caregivers through AIDS, and now in a new pandemic. Kushner doesn’t offer any answers to any of the questions, but in this reimagined ‘gender confused’ version those questions seem sharper than ever. Though we ultimately perhaps side with Belize’s triumphant ‘and you ain’t there’ to Roy about Heaven.
Kushner’s play was more than just a political treatise on AIDS, or Reaganism, or a ‘state of the nation’ play. It was a philosophical one, a philosophical experimental one. What we remember from the final two selections; Harper’s final monologue and the Epilogue, is that this play is about hope. And we could all use some of that around now too.
Harper, performed here by Lois Smith, has arguably the most beautiful piece of writing in the play. Possibly that Kushner has ever written. Her ‘Night Flight to San Francisco’ speech also happens to be really, the dramatic conclusion of the play. There are in the play clear lines between Prior, the Prophet and Harper as his counter. Never has Harper felt more Prophet-like than in Lois Smith’s understated and powerful performance. Harper’s final monologue is about repair. It’s what puts the character, actor and an audience back together in the full play. It’s a healing moment. And never more than in 2020 have we needed her words; ‘Nothing’s lost forever, in this world there is a kind of painful progress, longing for what we’ve left behind, and dreaming ahead.’
And if Harper’s monologue is healing, then Prior’s epilogue is a call to action. And Heyman shows the understanding of their dual power by putting them together here; the only two scenes that actually appear back to back in the full play. Set five years later, at the Bethesda Fountain in New York, Prior, along with Belize, ex-boyfriend Louis, his ex-boyfriend’s ex-lover’s Mormon Mother Harper (they did say the play was complex at the start) reflects on life, and politics. To echo Prior (Bryan Tyree Henry here) it’s not that what they say about politics here isn’t important, but it’s what Prior has to say that is more so.
He addresses the audience, breaking the fourth wall in a cinematic, not theatrical manner here, but the desired effect is still the same. It’s important for AIDS and for COVID-19 because Prior is living. He has lived through the plague at this point. And in seeing the Epilogue for Prior we might be reminded that it’s possible to see the other side too. But also, Prior reminds us to fight. He declares ‘we won’t die silent deaths anymore’ and it’s an invocation to action, to keep fighting, drawing it back to the political fight that is health in contemporary America.
Prior’s final words are healing ones, much like Prior’s. And here they become so much more. Voiced by Prior, but also in a montage of people affected by COVID-19 and their families, they form a tapestry—maybe a great net or web of souls to echo Harper’s previous words—and they speak together the final lines of Kushner’s play. It’s incredibly moving, and a perfect use of the play in this format. If you cannot gather for mourning, for activism, for sharing, then you find another way, you bring the people to you. That feels too like an updating of the AIDS theatre activism model.
And so to end, Prior and all of that community offer a blessing of ‘More Life’ followed by a call to activism with ‘The Great Work Begins’. The balance as ever that this play offered over two decades ago, a blessing, but a call to action.
By Dr. Emily Garside
amfAR’s The Great Work Begins: Scenes from Angels in America is available until 15th October at TheGreatWorkBegins.org, where you can also make a donation.