Last night, in the small but ambitious “An Other Theater” in Provo, Utah, we saw Part One of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America. Our friend and colleague and wonderful actor Kim Abunuwara played Hannah (and, as Kushner suggests, she also played Roy Cohn’s doctor, Ethyl Rosenberg, and the rabbi whose monologue opens the play). The performance moved me as deeply as did the 1992 performance of the play in London at the Royal National Theater’s Cottesloe Theater.
I was in London less than a year after my brother John died of AIDS-related causes.
My notes from that day and evening in London include a description of the cheap, noisy, and not especially clean Celtic Hotel where I spent the night, a scene in a park where a couple embraced while their young boy tried to catch their attention, thoughts about an essay on the standing stones I had been exploring for two weeks from Lands End to the Orkney Islands, observations in the Hayward Gallery’s wonderful exhibit of works by Magritte (“I think he hated women! The voice of a woman in her 60’s. She had just seen the breasts and genitals of a woman on a woman’s face”), and thoughts from Derek Jarman’s Modern Nature. Here a couple of pages:
26 May 1992, London
5:30 p.m., Trafalgar Square
I’ve been reading Derek Jarman’s Modern Nature, a journal written in 1989 and 1990 after the filmmaker discovered he was HIV positive. The passage in which Jarman describes boarding-school officials catching him in bed with a boy named Johnny echoes my anger during John’s funeral: “‘Christ! What are you doing?’ ‘You’ll go blind!’ Then the blows rained down, millennia of frustrated Christian hatred behind the cane. . . . We were shoved into the wilderness they had created, and commanded to punish ourselves for all time. So that at last we would be able to enter their heaven truly dead in spirit.”
7:30 p.m., The Royal National Theatre
Angels in America, a new play by Tony Kushner, an American writer I’ve not heard of. Under the heading “Real-Life Characters in the Play,” the program features pictures of Roy Cohn and Ethel Rosenberg. I turn the page and stare at a portrait of Joseph Smith. The program quotes Kushner: “I wanted to write about three things: Roy Cohn, who had just died; AIDS; and Mormons. I had no idea what Mormons might have to do with Roy Cohn or AIDS, but I wanted to find out.” The play’s primary angel is described as the angel Joseph Smith incorrectly identified as Moroni.
What have I stumbled into?
During the intermission I stand among women and men with whom I have just shared the brutality and humor of the first act. The play is about Louis, a gay Jew, and his drag-queen lover who is dying of AIDS. Joe, an ambitious Mormon lawyer who protests when Cohn takes the Lord’s name in vain and whose neglected wife compensates with Valium, fights to kill his homosexual urges. Joe’s wife tells the drag queen that “my church doesn’t believe in homosexuals.” “My church doesn’t believe in Mormons,” the drag queen replies. Louis explains the Jewish view of the next life to his dying lover.
Did John have any chance or inclination for such conversation?
End of act 2. The Mormon admits he is queer. The philosophic Jew leaves his dying lover. Roy Cohn has AIDS, is about to be disbarred, and needs the Mormon to cover for him in the Reagan Justice Department. There is violence. Self-destruction. Blood dripping from the dying man’s ass. Betrayal. Self-loathing. Beauty.
Act 3. One of the characters speaks of “the monolith of White America. White Straight Male America. Which is not unimpressive, even among monoliths.” Joe makes several moral choices: he tells Roy Cohn he can’t be dishonest, he won’t take the Washington job, and he decides to spend the night with Louis and go to Mormon hell.
I’m brimming with compassion, burning with ideas as I come out (I’d better say–as I leave the theater). I wish I could have seen the play with John. Did he even like plays?
And here the notes as they ended up in my Immortal for Quite Some Time.
I was intensely curious about what it had meant for John to be gay and was newly curious about what it meant for me to be straight. So I read, watched the play, traveled, watched other people, thought through things on the pages of my notebook—kept at it for over 20 years until the book was published in 2016.
Last night I realized I was still thinking through all the issues Kushner’s provocative play raises. And will, I suppose, until I die.
John, you died too soon.
[lots of photos of John and our family HERE]