I’ve stopped teaching Angels in America in the classroom.
My decision had nothing to do with the importance of the work or my admiration for the play. Other teachers warned me that Angels was a challenge, but I had to learn for myself. I tried once, twice—and then I gave up.
It came down to a question of running an effective classroom. An introductory theatre survey course taught to undergraduates typically clocks X number of plays over 15 weeks, analyzed through a filter like social change, gender politics, or cultural diversity. I included Angels in a sampling of scripts for a course titled “Diversity in American Theatre.” But Angels doesn’t play well with others.
In the first place, it’s long. I challenge students, but I know their limitations, and I was worried. What benefit is there to reading Part One without Part Two? Would both halves hold their interest? Would students flip out when the play flips out, and it gets the conference of angels? Would I end up simply showing them the HBO movie? (No, I did not.)
A second concern is the play’s sprawling purview. Educators on the undergraduate level are attracted to plays about “one thing.” The plays of a complicated playwright like August Wilson, for example, still function as compact teaching models. Tony Kushner’s Angels is ambitious, unruly, and wildly associative—an epic “fantasia” indeed—and that makes for heavy lifting.
To provide a context for Angels, one must start with the AIDS epidemic and its mechanics, the virus, the immune system, and then the medical conundrum, the war between researchers, the FDA struggle, the stress on medical professionals, the rise of AIDS activists, and the personal tumult for families, relationships, and the whole body politic. Add in context for the Jewish diaspora, the homosexual closet, Mormonism, the Reagan Administration, not to mention Roy Cohn, blacklisting, the Rosenbergs, white Anglo-Saxon history, and drag culture. That’s a long haul for the sake of one play.
What’s more, in a theatre course, one can’t simply state these facts without unpacking the cultural anxieties. Students want to know why all the characters in Angels are freaking out about everything. For starters:“millennium approaches,” the title of the first play. In 1991, when the initial installment had its premiere at the Eureka, everyone understood the dread. Today’s millennials are fully two generations removed. They think we were weird to worry that our computers would crash when the digits flipped to 2000. And that’s just the threshold of their confusion.
When I first broached Angels and the topic of gay men and AIDS in the classroom, an earnest student raised his hand to ask, “Is this a Matthew Shepard thing?” (In 1998, Shepard was beaten, tortured, and left to die in what is believed to have been a hate crime.) “No, but yes but no,” I replied. “This is before Matthew Shepard. AIDS is different. The hate is the same, though.” I could tell from the student’s face that he had no real reference for AIDS, gay people, or death—and that whatever I had said had only further confused him. And so the great work began.
AIDS isn’t the only hurdle in preparing students for Angels. When the play premiered in 1991, Mormonism was a closed belief system that didn’t welcome scrutiny. Kushner unraveled its core beliefs in an ancient mythical American history to engage and provoke audiences. Today’s students, however, have already laughed through Mormonism on “South Park.” Mormons are hilarious; they even have their own musical. The irreverent bias attaches like gum, and it’s a challenge to get it to unstick.
Today’s students are also as likely to dismiss Reagan as a disembodied head from “Futurama” or “that actor who was President.” They don’t recall the social policies or the AIDS death toll. Any President before they were born is a dinosaur to them. Yes, they handed out drugs that worked and drugs that didn’t. And yes, that’s hard to believe.
In the end, as much as I encouraged students to view Angels as a contemporary play, as relevant as ever, I could sense that they saw it as a play from the old days when things were weird. And they pushed back against it on the final exam.
I had already cautioned students to be wary of female characters treated like “tuna casseroles,” with no trajectory other than to deliver food and ask the right questions. “What is Harper but a tuna casserole on drugs?” one student wrote. “She sounds like the playwright talking.”
I had preached strict play structure, so I set students up to find fault with Kushner’s non-traditional approach. They criticized Prior’s passivity as protagonist and objected when Joe, arguably the most conflicted character, dropped out of the story altogether.
I had also warned students about the tired trope of the “magic Negro,” and they surprised me by applying that standard to Belize, the nurse, the actor for whom doubles as Mr. Lies, a “travel agent” for the Valium-addicted Harper. “Why is the only African-American man in the play either a drug dealer or a drag queen?” one student wrote. “It doesn’t help that he’s a nurse.” Another student stated outright, “I know Belize has all the best speeches. But how is being a ‘magic Negro’ not supposed to be a bad thing?”
I have plenty of arguments in response—but after the final exam, it’s too late to speak. I would venture that Kushner, who went on to write Caroline or Change, arguably the antithesis of “magic Negro,” would approach Belize differently if he were creating the character today. Joe drops out of the story because people do drop out of stories. Harper is flawed and codependent, I would argue. But those arguments will have to wait until I am offered a semester-long graduate seminar solely on the subject of Angels. Without that depth of analysis, it’s too easy for students to dismiss the work or to view it with ambivalence.
Until then, Angels is on the shelf while I work on better answers than “no but yes but no.”
Doug Cooney is a writer and educator in Los Angeles. He is an adjunct professor at Chapman University and Cypress College.