Forgiveness as the Giving and Receiving of Life Forgiveness and atonement in "Angels in America"

Photo above: "Angels in America" at Berkeley Repertory Theatre in 2018.

Angels in America at the Neil Simon Theatre in 2018: Nathan Lane, Nathan Stewart-Jarrett, and Susan Brown. (Credit: Helen Maybanks)


Belize: “He was a terrible person. He died a hard death. So maybe. A queen can forgive her vanquished foe. It isn't easy, it doesn't count if it's easy, it's the hardest thing. Forgiveness. Which is maybe where love and justice finally meet. Peace, at last. Isn't that what the Kaddish asks for?’”

How does Act Five Scene Three of Part Two (Perestroika) of “Angels in America” metaphorically demonstrate and reconcile conflicts among social groups of differing interests and identities in America?

My “object of study” is Act Five Scene Three of Part Two (Perestroika) of “Angels in America”, with an emphasis on the aforementioned quote by the black ex-drag queen and registered nurse Belize from the play “Angels in America” by Tony Kushner. In this scene, Belize says the above line to convince Louis, the jewish protagonist of the play, to join him in forgiving Roy, a lawyer who has close to no morals and despises homosexuals despite being a closeted homosexual himself. Those words suggest a way to unify people while accepting their limitations, which is a central theme of the play that becomes more and more apparent as the play nears its end in Perestroika. I would like to analyze the aforementioned scene to argue in my essay that elements such as love, justice, and peace are borne out of forgiveness and atonement, so despite the past and current social tensions and discrimination that different groups experience in America, they can prosper as part of the national community as long as they learn to forgive others and/or compensate for their mistakes. The animosity that specific groups have experienced are not constant and unchanging; I believe that the play has suggested how a country, as a national community, could change towards the better if we allow it to. It is demonstrated in the play that it is human nature to seek improvement of one’s own condition. This change is painful, but we should not shy away from it and be consumed by our hatred. We often see protests and movements in the news, and in the “Angel’s” point of view, these calls for change are threatening and destructive. Indeed, sometimes they lead to violence, more animosity, and even war, but we have to move forward with forgiveness and continue to make the most out of our lives. Just like Harper, Hannah, and Prior, who change dramatically over time in the play through their tormenting experiences, America will change too, and forgiveness is the ladder that will help us pick the hanging fruits of this change. To conduct research on this topic and answer the question I proposed, I plan to read the play in detail, watch the critically acclaimed series adaptation made in 2003, read at least 5 reviews of the play and/or the series that differ in perspective, and read news articles about efforts to raise awareness and encourage inclusivity of different identities in the US. If I have enough time, I would also like to read a few critical essays on the play that discuss its theme of change and forgiveness.

Left and Middle: Nathan Stewart-Jarrett (Belize) and Nathan Lane (Roy Cohn) in "Angels in America" at Neil Simon Theatre in 2018. Right: Caldwell Tidicue and Stephen Spinella at Berkeley Repertory Theatre in 2018.


The scene starts at 2am in Roy's hospital room, where Roy's corpse is still in the bed and the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg is sitting in a nearby chair. Belize enters the room with Louis following him. Louis is wearing an overcoat and dark glasses, and Belize tells him that the glasses look silly and that he should take them off. Upon hearing Belize’s comment, Louis takes off his glasses and shows the two black eyes and the cut on his face. Belize asks Louis how he got beat up, and Louis says: "Expiation. For my sins" (5.3.6). Louis then asks Belize why he brought him here, and Belize reveals to Louis that he wants him to help him smuggle Roy's AZT stash out of the hospital. Belize called Louis because Louis is a Jew, and he wants Louis to say the Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead, because he feels somewhat guilty about stealing from the dead. Louis refuses and states that Roy is the root of all evil, so he would not say a prayer for him. Belize talks about how forgiveness is a beautiful thing, especially when it's hard (this is the quote from above). Louis says he doesn't really know the Kaddish. He tries to say it but fails. Ethel Rosenberg stands and softly begins to chant it. Louis then repeats after her. They end with, "V'imru omain [...] You sonofabitch" (5.3.36-39). Ethel vanishes, leaving Louis amazed by how miraculous it was that he somehow remembered the Kaddish.

Forgiveness, which is necessary for the taking of Roy's medicine in this scene, quite literally acts as the giving and receiving of life. This entire scene could be seen as a metaphor for a way to unify people while accepting their limitations. When elevated to the national level, it reflects upon the general issues of identity that the American society constantly grapples with. Like how Belize dislikes Roy, certain groups in the US find themselves to be in an adversarial position against other groups due to deeply rooted historical or ideological conflicts. However, the play uses this scene to sketch a promising and hopeful image of the future of the American society, where atonement and forgiveness act as the glue that holds people together and rebuilds fragmented communities. Nonetheless, this image is in some ways lacking in its attempt to represent the queer black community and therefore loses some of its power of persuasion, as will be discussed later in this essay.

Belize at Roy's bedside in Angels in America: Perestroika — Photo: Danisha Crosby

There are several aspects of this scene that suggest the significance of forgiveness and inclusion with regards to the variety of identities in America. When Belize explains to Louis that he needs Louis to sing a Kaddish, he is recognizing the importance of religious ceremony even though he isn’t Jewish. Religion, regardless of one’s actual belief, has to do with honoring other human beings in a time of need, and Belize shows great empathy towards this notion. The way that Belize, seemingly a secular person, crosses over into religious territory resonates with the way that Hannah, the Mormon mother, “crosses over” to take care of Prior Walter at the end of the play. This notion of selfless inclusion suggests a prerequisite for building diverse communities – not only should any individual be able to face their own cultural and historical identity, but others should understand and accept the necessity of differences in their identities. Later in the scene when Louis is having difficulty delivering the Kaddish, Ethel Rosenberg appears and guides him (without his knowledge) in his prayer. This “miracle” could be interpreted as the statement that Ethel lives on in the minds of people that she has influenced. As an American Jew executed due to conviction for treason despite a clear lack of involvement, Ethel represents the divide between the “Americans” and the “immigrants”. In many ways, this division between national identities parallels the alienation felt by queers and AIDS patients within the country, which could be Tony Kusher’s way to showing the audience that the fragmentation of society occurs at all levels of the world. Even though Louis does not personally know Ethel, they share a sense of identity and a feeling of alienation from the society they live in. Ethel’s presence in this scene also suggests another fundamental idea about the nature of human relationships: despite being enemies, Ethel and Roy are still bound together as people even in death. The fact that we all share the same fate emphasizes the necessity of forgiveness, and by acting upon forgiveness, Belize is able to come to terms with taking the medicine that Roy has left behind and use it to save other patients of AIDS.

Roy Cohn's (Stephen Lovatt) physical condition deteriorates, with Ethel Rosenberg standing nearby.

Atonement, as another major theme of this play, is effectively depicted in this scene. Roy and Louis, who are two drastically different characters, both underwent the process of atonement. Roy does not have a choice, as he has died and Belize decides to use his medicine, but his death is not the end of his impact. This is often reflected in reality, since events that result in the death of individuals symbolize the beginning of new movements for change. Despite being a villain in the play, in his death Roy becomes part of Belize’s effort to save other patients of AIDS. Like Belize says in this scene, “it [forgiveness] isn’t easy, it doesn’t count if it’s easy” (5.3), but it proves to be valuable and necessary for the betterment of others. Although the Kaddish is sung for Roy, Louis also seems to find a sense of peace by performing this ritual of forgiveness. Louis may be feeling relief at the possibility of an individual being forgiven despite the wrongdoings they might have committed. He is deeply aware of the lack of morality in his decisions up to this point in the play. He has not only betrayed his lover, but he has also made himself a hypocrite by being so utterly selfish in his personal life even though he has expressed the belief that he is a liberal who wants the government to help its people and that conservatism is the embodiment of selfishness. Roy, someone Louis despises so intensely, is dead in this scene, but his death has given Louis a chance to help Prior and, in some sense, atone for his own sins. When viewed from a social standpoint, this irony exists to show that even though mistakes can’t be undone, opportunities for atonement could come from such mistakes. By acknowledging the differences in the identities of Louis and Roy and how much Louis despises Roy, one could see that forgiveness blurs the line between helper and enemy and allows members of society to make amends for their past wrongdoings.

Louis (Wil Bethmann) and Belize (Kevane La’Marr Coleman) in Act 5 Scene 3 of Perestroika.

The merits of this scene do not compensate for a particular downfall of the play with respect to the representation of social groups: the play does not tell the story of the queer African American. There are two black characters in the play, one of which is Mr. Lies, a travel agent who transports crazy white people during their hallucinations, and the other is someone almost equally fascinating – the queer black nurse Belize. Note that in most theater productions, these two characters were actually played by the same actor. In retrospect, these two characters exists primarily to develop white characters. Although Belize says at one point in the play that “I have a man, uptown” (4.3), the audience never gets to see his man and never finds out anything about his family. Additionally, Jewish characters speak with other Jews and Mormons speaks with other Mormons, while the single (real) black character only talks to white people. To some extent, the play creates the impression that black American queerness only exists in the backdrop of white American queerness, and that the former does not stand alone as an identity. Without exaggeration, Cohn calls Belize a “nigger” and that’s how he’s treated by everyone in the play. As a nurse, Belize takes care of Roy, and when he’s off the job, he emotionally comforts Prior after Louis abandons him, attends to Louis when he feels guilty about leaving Prior, and (as Mr. Lies) supports Harper when she fell into a delusional state. To the audience, Belize seems strong but helpless as he is, in his own words, “trapped in a world of white people.” Even in the specific scene that this essay analyzes, Belize plays the role of the “forgiver”. While the nation will continue to be transformed by the very people that suffered from its development, Americans cannot always expect them to be on the receiving end. As Steven Thrasher has commented with respect to “Angels in America”, “Art can’t responsibly tell the story of America only through the experiences of white people, nor can it tell the story of AIDS without dramatizing the specific horrors it has had on the black community” (Thrasher).

Angels, Fear, and Dread: Karl Miller's Prior finds hope beneath his shroud.

Even beyond the scene of interest, forgiveness and atonement drive progress in the play. They allow Prior to remain friends with Louis, permit Ethel to return to the afterworld in peace, and enable Harper to put Joe out of her mind and begin her life anew. In the America portrayed by the play and in the America of today, these ideas lead to the reconstruction of relationships and societies. Even though the message conveyed by this scene might strike some as unrealistic, it has created a meaningful image for social reconciliation through its hopeful representation of America. Stuart Hall in particular believes that representation in itself is the source of meaning, and nothing has a meaning before it has been represented in some way (“Stuart Hall”). It is still worthy of note that the play accurately reflects upon the identities of all but one of the groups it has involved in this effort to demonstrate the power of forgiveness and atonement, specifically queer African Americans. As a result, even though the scene of interest is effective in conveying the social implications of these thematic ideas, it loses some of its appeal to realism under close examination.

Prior (Alex Bodine) and Belize (Kevane La’ Marr Coleman) in Cygnet Theatre, San Diego.

Main photo above: Randy Harrison, Caldwell Tidicue, Benjamin T. Ismail, and Carmen Roman in "Angels in America" at Berkeley Repertory Theatre in 2018

“To forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover that the prisoner was you.”

- Louis B. Smedes

Illustration: Brian Stauffer for the Wall Street Journal


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Thrasher, Steven W. “Why Is Angels In America Still The Most Prominent Story Being Told About AIDS?” BuzzFeed News, BuzzFeed News, 25 Mar. 2018, https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/steventhrasher/angels-in-america.