Continuing where Millennium Approaches ends, the second part of Tony Kushner’s acclaimed Angels in America follows the characters already introduced as they continue to struggle with sickness, relationships, themselves, emotions, and politics. The play begins when the Angel has crashed through Prior’s ceiling. Refusing to be a prophet, Prior tells her to go away, which she of course ignores. Harper calls Joe out on the fact that he fell out of love with her. Louis finds out about Joe’s right-wing politics and religious beliefs and can’t believe he’s sleeping with him. Along with being Prior’s best friend and Louis’s messenger, Belize unwantingly finds himself nursing the now hospitalized Roy, who faces being disbarred from law practice for his unethical methods. Thus Perestroika unfolds into a provocative play that, like Harper’s Valium-induced dreams, border on realism and fantasy.
Among its numerous themes carried over from Millennium Approaches are coping with AIDS and death, love and relationships, being true to oneself, homophobia, racism, religion, politics, and hope. More apparent than in part one is the idea of growth and change. This is seen not only through the characters’ actions but even in the play’s title, Perestroika, which is Russian for rebuilding, reconstruction, and reorganization. The word refers to the economic and political reforms in the Soviet Union under Gorbachev in the mid-eighties that later led the the Soviet Union’s end.
One can empathize with the characters because they’re so believable. Louis, who still feels he deserves to be punished for leaving Prior and “his disease”, tries to atone for his sins. Joe struggles with being gay, his beliefs as a Mormon, and his poor treatment of his wife. Based on the “all too real” historical lawyer of the same name is the racist and closeted Roy Cohn. One of Roy’s two nicest acts is when he blesses Joe, who is like a son to him. Society is full of close friends, estranged families, nice guys, jerks, and the sick and Kushner brings it all close to home.
Whereas part one was more dramatic, Perestroika is more of a comedy in that there is growth and issues are resolved. With the angels and Heaven, it’s more fantastical than its more grounded counterpart. The mood is lighter and there’s humor without detracting from the seriousness of the characters’ situations, which are as Kushner says:
“among the hardest problems- how to let go of the past, how to change and lose with grace, how to keep going in the face of overwhelming suffering”.
Kushner’s writing is poignant to the point of harsh, but honest and compassionate. It’s witty, socially and politically aware, intelligent, and really good. I was originally tepid about watching the film Munich, until I read an article about how Steven Spielberg convinced Kushner, who originally refused, into writing the script. Kushner was able to keep it extremely human and show both sides of the political story. He didn’t really tip-toe over sentiments, but he didn’t stomp on them either. I respect writers who can do that. I would say that Kushner is one of my favorite contemporary playwrights, but so far I’ve only read Angels in America… thrice. Not that I need much of a push to re-read it, this last time was for the Challenge That Dare Not Speak Its Name simply because it was on my shelf and it’s been awhile. I would really like to read more of Kushner’s plays and get to know them better.
Although they are separate entities, the two parts making up Angels in America can be read as stand-alones. Reading Millennium Approaches prior to Perestroika will add more depth and help put things into context, but it isn’t necessary. One or the other, or both, I highly recommend them.
Because it’s such a beautiful way to end the play:
“This disease will be the end of many of us, but not nearly all, and the dead will be commemorated and will struggle on with the living, and we are not going away. We won’t die secret deaths anymore. The world only spins forward. We will be citizens. The time has come. Bye now. You are fabulous creatures, each and every one.”