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Vol. 31 No. 1

Are We “Citizens”? Tony Kushner’s Deweyan Democratic Vision in Angels in America

by Courtney Ferriter
The Journal of American Drama and Theatre
Volume 31, Number 1 (Fall 2018)

ISNN 2376-4236
©2018 by Martin E. Segal Theatre Center

In his recent book Democracy in Black (2016), Eddie S. Glaude, Jr. argues that for Americans, “collective forgetting is crucial in determining the kind of story we tell ourselves. Ours is the chosen nation, the ‘shining city upon a hill,’ as Ronald Reagan called it. America is democracy. . . . To believe this, we have to forget and willfully ignore what is going on around us.”[1] While Glaude is particularly concerned with the distortions and fairy tales Americans continue to tell ourselves about race, Tony Kushner’s epic two-part play Angels in America tackles this same theme of conveniently forgetting and willfully ignoring so as not to disrupt the American self-image with respect to sexual orientation and the AIDS crisis of the 1980s.

Kushner’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play received much acclaim from critics and scholars alike for many years following its initial publication—resulting in initial runs on Broadway and the National Theatre in London in 1992-1993 and an award-winning 2003 HBO mini-series starring Al Pacino, Meryl Streep, and Emma Thompson—but more recently, it seems to have fallen out of favor among scholars, despite a successful 2010 revival at the Signature Theatre and a 2017 production at the National Theatre that transferred to Broadway in February 2018. Indeed, many (although not all) scholarly articles that discuss Kushner and Angels in recent years focus on how AIDS functions in the play,[2] with scant consideration of Kushner’s portrayal of democracy. I argue that Kushner is especially relevant in the socio-historical moment in which Americans currently find ourselves—one marked by political polarization and distrust of those who think differently than we do. The 2016 election was symptomatic of these problems and brought them into full view for any who still harbored doubts about how deep this divide runs, but Kushner’s play proves instructive for how to build an engaged democratic citizenry.

In the epilogue to Part Two of Angels in America, Prior leaves the audience with an optimistic vision for the future, stating, “The world only spins forward. We will be citizens. The time has come.”[3] He then offers a blessing of “more life,” and the play concludes with the same phrase that appears at the end of Part One: “The Great Work Begins” (Perestroika, 146). As David Kornhaber has observed, many scholars and critics are dissatisfied with the play’s conclusion due to “the reconciliationist politics it seems to espouse,”[4] which for them provides “a too-easy gloss on more intractable problems”[5] that continue to plague society. Thus, Kornhaber reasons, “a lot must depend on how one figures what seem to be the two key concepts of Kushner’s conclusion: citizen and blessing.”[6] Like Kornhaber, I believe that individual understanding of the term “citizens” as well as broader notions of what constitutes citizenship figure heavily in interpretation of both the epilogue and Angels as a whole. Furthermore, I contend that Kushner’s idea of citizenship is necessarily linked to the beginning of the “Great Work” invoked at the end of both parts of the play. In Angels, “citizens” are those who are part of a Deweyan community, made up of diverse people with sometimes conflicting opinions who listen to each other and who are nonetheless connected by their desire to enact positive change in the world, to progress toward a more ideal and inclusive democracy. This is what Prior (and by extension, Kushner) means by “Great Work.” Individualism and undemocratic communication—represented by Roy Cohn and Joe Pitt—fall away by the end of Angels in America, making room for what Atsushi Fujita calls a “a new model of community,”[7] consisting of Belize, Hannah, Louis, and Prior, who value inclusivity and democratic communication.

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