LBGTQ Visibility in Kushner’s “Angels in America”

In his Introduction, Kushner states that “Angels is a hopeful work” (x), and in many ways Angels in America lives up to this promise. While dealing with themes of love, mental health, and justice, the play also offers a hopeful insight about the family as an institution. One on hand, Kushner displays the family as a self-reinforcing structure; family members develop expectations that they then impose on their relatives. It is for this reason that Hannah and Joe diverge over Joe’s sexuality. However, the following interactions between Hannah and Prior reveal that this bigotry isn’t essential to Hannah’s character. She grows to withhold judgement. Ironically, Kushner then unites the two characters in an equal state of understanding, and in the end offers a hopeful commentary on the nature of ‘coming out.’

While it’s easy to dismiss Hannah’s first reaction to Joe’s sexuality as homophobic (and it kinda is), it’s also important to note her tone. She comes from, admittedly a position of ignorance, but there’s still evidence of compassion. In answering the 4am call, two of her first three questions were “What’s happened?” (77). Until Joe ‘comes out,’ her focus remains isolated on his safety. She comments how “It’s dangerous” and how he should “go home right now” (78). In fact, Joe was first to frame his sexuality as something that would hurt her, “well, it[, the call,] gets worse from here on” (78). However, Joe through hesitating reveals several of the expectations underlying his family dynamics, the most notable being that his role as Hannah’s child is endangered through his sexuality. He calls her first “Mom” (79), and then “Mamma” (79), the latter being an attempt to imitate his childhood self. This highlights the expectation for Joe to be the same person he has presented as, yet also implies that he has felt a sense of difference since childhood. The scene therefore unfolds into a paradox where Joe simultaneously tries to convey his difference while still needing to fill the same role. Hannah, by contrast is put into an impossible situation, somehow needing to acknowledge the change without acknowledging that it is a change. From this lens, her silence on the issue, while on one hand, is avoidance, on the other, serves to protect Joe. Even in denial, Hannah tries to fulfill her motherly expectation in not chastising her son.

Expectations plague Hannah and Joe’s relationship. In contrast, neither Hannah nor Prior have expectations for one another. When they meet, it’s as though they come from two different worlds, with Hannah volunteering, having just met with Joe, and Prior showing up “wet, in his prophet garb, [and] dark glasses on, despite the dark day outside” (234). Yet, this strangeness is what allows them to freely interact, and they quickly exchange intimacies, Prior about his illness and Hannah about her curiosities. The two symbolically bridge the divide as Prior asks “Do I have a fever?” where Hannah, “hesitates, then puts her hand on his forehead” (235). Unlike Joe, Prior allows Hannah to react to him, his beliefs, and his worries, and in the process, they can form a subtle understanding. Hannah laments, “You don’t make assumptions about me, mister; I won’t make them about you” (240).

Returning to the idea of ‘coming out,’ Angels in America seems to suggest that familial expectations are damning. However, Hannah’s development, in getting close to Prior, offers hope for the visibility movement. One may even argue that Hannah stopped to help Prior because of her recent interactions with Joe. In such a case, the play offers yet more hope to closeted individuals who hesitate in opening up to their family. Either, the visible presence of Prior led Hannah to empathize with Joe, or Joe’s coming out proved successful in changing Hannah’s outlook enough to empathize with Prior.

One thought on “LBGTQ Visibility in Kushner’s “Angels in America””

  1. This was such an interesting blog post to read. I thoroughly enjoyed the part when you mentioned Hannah and Joe’s experience and the expectations that harm their difficult phone call. I liked when you made the connection that Hannah’s silence may almost be better than speaking at all considering her beliefs. It is her attempt at the saying “better to say nothing at all, instead of something negative,” it is difficult to hold back judgements. Perhaps, in an attempt to push the So What question making the connection between the difference between Prior and Joe’s relation to Hannah. Perhaps since Hannah is a stranger to Prior she is more comfortably able to ask questions regarding her curiosities on the queer community. What are the implications for the difference in response, what would her reaction had that physical body attack been on Joe instead of Prior?

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