Deconstructing Our Angels

A virus that separates us, that as I type this sentence has killed over six hundred thousand Americans, making us terrified of physical touch, increasing isolation, despair, and disproportionately taking the lives of Black and Gay people- hearkens back to the early days of the AIDS crisis.

Angels in America by Tony Kushner, two epic plays written over three decades ago, addresses virus, the body, sexuality, gender, alienation, blackness, whiteness, jewishness and touch in ways that are relevant and eerily familiar to 2021.

As “45” called Covid 19 “ the Democrats’ new hoax” and made jokes, be reminded that in the late 80s President Ronald Reagan refused to publicly acknowledge AIDS and his administration audibly laughed at the disease in press conference. Whether it is brown children in cages, or dying in a ditch trying to cross a border, or gay men dying, the opinion of the far right when it comes to oppression they enable is:

How we care for each other as LGBTQIA family does matter. This being the last day of pride in 2021, attention must be paid. This is a deep dive into Angels in America nerd-dom. So if you want to read a fangirl musing about actor and director choices, and production details while critiquing and dragging Kushner where he needs it and giving him due praise where it is called for, scroll on down!

In Oct of 2019 I drove to see a production, in person, of the complete work Angels in America at the St Louis Repertory Theatre Company. I know in summer 2021 we have Bruce Springsteen to thank for bringing in person theatre back…

However right now travel back with me and remember what it was like in the before times. In 2019 you could go see theatre without risking your life, and I actually touched the actors, who were also out Gay men. Because of the pandemic that affects my Black and LGBTQ community and being a caregiver for my senior citizen parents, I have not touched most people in some time.

The STL Rep production brings the question of black embodied representation, and the troubled white/jewish gaze into dynamic conversation.

Who is telling the stories of Black and Queer bodies onstage and how might a Black actor disrupt the white gaze by their acting choices, are two governing questions the production brought up for me.

Cis, BGM, David Ryan Smith played the character of Belize in this production. Belize is the only Black character in the two plays. Smith was directed by Viewpoints/Columbia MFA trained, Cis,WGM (and we went to the same performing arts high school I guess?)Tony Speciale. The interaction of Smith as Belize with the main White protagonist, Prior Walter played by Cis WGM Barrett Foa gave me great pause in terms of bodies, touch, race and the performance of Gay masculinity onstage.

The character of Belize infuriates my black activist and scholar brain, yet also delights my Black, Gay soul. Written by Kushner as simultaneously a caricature of a black snap queen, (a clever, yet troubling substitute for the mad black woman cliche so often seen in media) who occasionally has feminine mannerisms and a lexicon of intimate black vernacular, Belize is extremely problematic in terms of binary representations of blackness via the white gaze. He is literally a nurse-maid to white men, and his charge is his ex boyfriend. Belize, enters the play with great fanfare, bursting into the hospital room of Prior and often physically cradles Prior in his arms throught the plays, and although Belize in the text of Kushner’s epic refers to blacks being frustrated with nursing white men, in scene 5 of Angels in America: Millennium Approaches, “If I want to spend my whole lonely life looking after white people I can get underpaid to do it.” I’m not sure it lets Kushner off the hook from still making the sole black character in his version of NYC, a maid, alright he’s a nurse-maid but is that not simply a clever cheat?

Is Belize the modern Nurse to Prior Walters’ Juliet?

Despite the best efforts of any actor, Kushner is beautifully yet frustratingly verbose at times, and often if you don’t have the actors doing something visually interesting, merely believing truthfully in your given circumstances and fiercely pursuing an objective as an actor alone isn’t going to captivate an audience in over 7 hours of theatre. In other words, yes, you do indeed “gotta get a gimmick.” That is a GYPSY reference my children and if you do not know that, then the world, (and homosexuals at large) has failed you.

Speciale used the lanes, Viewpoints work to great effect in part one, to stage and overlap scenes in counterpoint with effective spatial relationships that subliminally at times, re-emphasized and added context to relationships. Now yes, all “good blocking” does hopefully, but the Viewpoints work ensured arresting physical images. If you are familiar with the technique and the elements, it can become paint by number in the execution under the wrong hands, however Speciale was able to avoid over using signature exploration of the technique. Like Fosse, less is more and he understood that.

When we are first introduced to Belize onstage in this production, he enters in a delightful denim jacket ensemble that looks like the rainbow love child of Keith Haring & Jean-Michel Basquiat thanks to brilliant work of black female costume designer Dede Ayite. What was different about this Belize, I noticed, is that this is the first time I have seen a Black actor in the role that doesn’t look like RuPaul in stature. This Belize has broad shoulders, is built like a brick house, and is believable as a male nurse who possesses the strength to pick full grown men up and turn them over in the bed.

Now, now, with respect not to fall into gender performance/body shaming, Belize is usually cast as a slight, tall snap queen and the semiotics of a slight build does not exactly connote physical strength… This Belize as superbly embodied by David Ryan Smith, has all the sass and femme energy of the typical portrayal of Belize, but due to the semiotic meaning of strength associated with his stature and presence, he wonderfully brings with the sass, a physical presence, that is generally missing from most portrayals of this role. You believe this Belize is an “ex-ex drag queen” as he says in Scene two of the first play, Angels in America: Millenium Approaches, but you also believe he is no nonsense, and has the physical power to break you in half. The brevity of time to really experiment a lot or play with the characters in a professional regional theatre, Equity rehearsal schedule, is well known. So I must give high praise for Prior Walter, (Barrett Foa) and Belize (David Ryan Smith), and director Tony Speciale for in a short time they established great chemistry between these characters who according to the script are former lovers. I believed that to the very core of my bones by their physical interaction with each other. These two actors had an intimate bond you could viscerally feel. I’m not certain what intimacy choreography training Speciale has as a director, but whatever alchemy transpired in rehearsal paid off. The embers of gay romance that often simmer down to a smoldering friendship, life long bond and familiar chosen family in gay relationships were evident in every glance, condescending tone, eyebrow arch, laugh and touch between these two actors. The physicality in the tenderness in which David Ryan Smith would hold Foa and the physical nuance in the embodied reaction of Foa upon reciving said touch told the audience everything we needed to know about the past, present and future of the relationshp between Belize and Prior.

This is only my second time seeing the full marathon of both Angels in America plays produced by a professional theatre. I first was introduced to the piece in high school, when I saw Millennium Approaches, when Actors Theatre Louisville staged it in 1998, (with then relatively unknown Billy Porter as Belize) then saw both plays in marathon at ATLouisville in 2017. It also struck me for the first time with this production that Mr. Lies (a character the Black actor playing Belize doubles as later in the plays) is racialized as Black by Kushner. People can be different genders, (actresses playing Harper and Mrs Pitt, play men and women of different races and genders in both plays) but the actor playing Belize must be the character that facilitates the pill induced delusions of the Utah Mormon housewife…literally a magical negro who whisks Harper off to Antarctica and all points foreign and exotic.

It always seemed to me it would make more sense for the character of Joe Pitt (the husband of Harper) to be “Mr Lies” since he abandons his wife in the play, and is telling lies to her as he finally realizes and accepts his gay sexuality. It is problematic at best to have the sole black visage onstage be the conduit for delusion, and lies. I think it is extremely charitable to wave this choice of Kushner in writing away saying, ‘well that shows the prejudices of a blonde, white Mormon, Utah housewife’ as that is not addressed in the piece. That perhaps implicit critique, (if even valid) would need to be spoken, or played out within the piece to be effectively critiquing the racism of the character of Harper. In my humble opinion Kushner can’t get “woke” credit if a critique is below the line. Bring it above, and call it out, explicitly. In fact, the delusions of Harper are so well written, and full of semiotic meaning that it becomes normative. You actually look forward to the magical negro appearing and taking Harper to her next vacation of the mind locale, sigh…I struggled to rationalize the choice without some kind of real critique internally other than “she is on drugs.” The use of Belize as exotic escort to destinations unknown simply seems objectifying of the African American black male body without context. When the character of Prior Walter has his body objectified in Scene 2 of Angels in America: Millennium Approaches, literally standing naked onstage, it is intentional, clinical, for an exam by a medical professional, we see Kaposi sarcoma- it makes sense. The physical acting choices of Barret Foa greatly helps Kushner here and also puts the objectification into context as he played the complicated moment with incredible nuance, and a palpable emotional transperancy in both moving his body and tilting his hips back with perfunctory tiredness, yet injecting the moment with great pathos via his eyes. Foa transmits the indignity of this medical examination with a look, a downward head turn that devastated the audience, despite the repetition of the act of inspection. Under his physical acting choices, we were presented with a rather strong moment of how banal indignity becomes in the loss of body agency at the time for someone with AIDS-constantly being prodded and poked and physically stripped of everything by medical professionals while the disease is simultaneously stripping their physical body of strength, and society is stripping their lives of meaning by stigma and forced isolation.

In opposition, Kushner positions Belize via Mr Lies as a black body just presented to perform basically, magical traveling spells. For the portrayal of Mr Lies to make sense or work, the actor playing Belize must relish the magic and fantasy of the role. Lean into it with gusto, as David Ryan Smith did with panache. His choice to embody Mr Lies with a Harlem Renaissance flair thanks in part also to the physical grace, and musical theatre dance skills and dexterity of Smith who glides along the stage, smooth as ice, decked out in another fabulous Ayite costume, a hat, a green tie, white vest and deep purple blazer with stripes, and trousers looking like a proper dream insurance salesman, Smith moved with quick precision, that was articulated vocally by his diction and crisp consonants. Kushner leaves us no mental space for nuanced critique of the moment as with Prior Walter in the before mentioned exam scene. David Ryan Smith is wonderful at portraying fancy and charm and a hint of danger as Mr Lies/Belize is written there. As Kushner writes Belize he is a black body without agency and adding to the problem of the character both in real (as a nurse) and imaginary (as Mr Lies) moments being in perpetual servitude to whiteness.

I argue the dismissal of these semiotic readings of the text and depictions by actor choices onstage as being too sensitive or “too much” (as usually is the case when you point out white centrality in narratives) is a reading by whiteness used to being centered and POC being othered.

With as moving as Angels in America is, the plays certainly place Belize, and therefore blackness, as a monolith-an exotic other. As the late, great Toni Morrison said, “In this country, American means white. Everybody else has to hyphenate.” Despite the character of Belize batting about the term “monolith” in scene two of Angels in America: Millennium Approaches, in a riveting argument with the character of Louis, Belize is THE monolith-all things black in this world. He is even actually named Belize, a place outside of the contiguous United States, again, an outsider. As we work to make Black Lives Matter in real life, and onstage, and to foster, equity, diversity and inclusion in narratives, the casting of David Ryan Smith was a beautiful departure, (kudos to casting agent Jeremy Cohen of the St Louis Rep) a disruption to the white gaze, or “traditionally” what this “ex-ex” drag queen should look like, his very presence and body, his being-how he walks through the world with his size, and stature really presents this particular Belize being liminal, in between. Belize IS the nursemaid ministering angel to Prior, not the Angel that comes down from the sky, Belize delivers the life saving balm. Belize IS the balm of Gilead that actually puts an actual balm on Prior and then delivers the actual medicine that heals him in the form of AZT pills. Belize is the one who is nursing Prior back to health, Belize is the one who criticizes and condemns Louis, (Prior Walters former lover who left him to die alone of AIDS when it became too much for him to handle) and eventually reunites Louis and Pryor at the end possibly, we don’t know.

Meanwhile we never see the life of Belize, other than being a nurse to another white man, rabid, racist dog Roy Cohn, and one scant line from Belize about “having a man, uptown” in Scene 5 of the second play, Angels in America: Perestroika, but Belize must be ALL blackness. He must be transitory, moving, shape shifting, from place to place from the masculine to the femme, to the center of blackness and moderate centrist respectability politics,

Belize must be all things to all people due to his location by Kushner of being, “the one black”.

So where does this leave me with the epic gay love odyssey that is Angels in America? I am left like America in 2021:

In my estimation the casting of and magnetic performances of David Ryan Smith and Barret Foa achieved a master stroke of disrupting the problematic gaze of Kushner. Respectfully they did more than most have been able to achieve with these plays in giving Belize as much agency as possible with the text as it is. In the end, as a black actor in a white supremacist theatrical cannon, you must work with what is on the page, and there is the problem. I am uncomfortable with Belize conscripted to be all things black in these plays. I have to be comfortable with being uncomfortable in wrestling with this work. It was a wonderful production of a very problematic piece when it comes to Black Gay Americans, but then so is America, and I love IT too… Kushner tried very hard in 1991, the plays are admittedly gorgeously written, and say powerful and important things about my queer family, but today it certainly falls short of being progressive when it comes to race. It will have to be added to another of a long list of problematic faves. It is why it is vital to financially support black creatives like Jeremy O. Harris, Suzan Lori Parks, Tarell Alvin McCraney, and other new black writers who are writing their own narratives on race in America. For Black Gay Lives to Matter, black minds have to be engaged, invited, and employed to craft black stories.

I have to end this saying, I could not find anyone to publish this piece and I get it. What is this? Is it a literary critique of the writing of Kushner? Is it a production review of a certain production of his play? Is it an inspirational manifesto on what can happen when Black and White Gay bodies onstage work in concert to tell the story of our Gay lives?

Yes, it is all of these things, and I am glad it is too complicated and nuanced a piece for prime time. On this last day of Pride, I wanted to mark the ephemeral stage work of these gay actors telling gay stories that has stayed with me in a way it had never before. If you liked this, please clap for me below. Share it too. Share more Gay stories. Share Black thought.

Happy Pride

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William Fitzgerald Flood

William Fitzgerald Flood

Artist, Activist, Professor and occasional watcher of too many 80s cartoons.