Power, Oppression, and Disease

Kushner uses Roy Cohn as a symbol throughout Angels in America to show how power, oppression, and disease are inherently connected. This connection is most obviously portrayed in Act I, Scene 9 in which Roy Cohn denies both being a homosexual and having AIDs when diagnosed by his doctor, despite both of these being true. In this scene, Kusher is drawing attention to the privilege that Roy has by having an immense amount of power. Since Cohn is a wealthy and successful white man, he has the power to be gay without facing any oppression. This can be seen in his statement “Say: ‘Roy Cohn, you are a homosexual.’… And I will proceed, systematically, to destroy your reputation and your practice, and your career in New York State, Henry. Which you know I can do (45). With this statement, it can be seen that Roy’s immense power not only protects him from being exposed and therefore oppressed by the homophobic system that exists in the united states, but it also protects him from even accepting it himself. This line also reveals Roy’s understanding of how easily this power can be taken away from him. Cohn’s greatest fear through this conversation is not that he is dying but that being labeled as a homosexual will change his status in society. He says “Like all labels, they tell you one thing and one thing only: where does an individual so identified fit in the food chain, in the pecking order? Not ideology, or sexual taste but something much simpler: clout.” By saying this, It is clear that Roy is not only revealing a deeply internalized hatred for his identity as a homosexual man but further, a clear understanding that being labeled as a homosexual will instantly lessen his power as a highly respected lawyer. 

Kushner further uses Roy as a symbol to show the inevitable loss of social status that comes with disease and death. While Roy uses his privilege and power to avoid being oppressed, it is evident that by having AIDS, he will ultimately lose this power to control how he is perceived by the public when he dies. This fear of losing control over how he is perceived can be seen in Roy’s hallucinations of the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg. This fear of loss of power is clear when Roy says “I’m immortal. Ethel….I have forced my way into history. I ain’t ever gonna die.” To which she responds “History is about to crack wide open. Millennium approaches.” Roy’s denial of dying resembles the same denial of being a homosexual and having aids that he conveyed in his conversation with his doctor. It can be seen that Ethel’s appearance in Roy’s hallucination resembles this fear of death since Roy was responsible for her death and her true identity as a communist spy being exposed. By saying that “history is about to crack wide open,” Ethel expresses what Roy is too scared to admit—that once he dies, his history—his true identity—will be exposed and he will have no power over how he is perceived anymore.