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Angels in america unpacking the privilege of assimilation the melting pot myth Created Olivia Dulai

ABSTRACT

This study explores the myth of the Melting Pot through an analysis of Act Three Scene Two of Angels in America by Tony Kushner. The scene focuses on an interaction between Louis and Belize, two gay men living through the height of the AIDS crisis in New York City with one key difference: their race. Despite their marginalization as gay men, Louis is still privileges in many ways particularly his race. In this interaction, Louis presents a long-winded argument about the defining characteristics of Americans, coming tot he conclusion that what defines and divides Americans is not race but politics. Louis has been able to assimilate into the American Melting Pot in a way that Belize has not; because he is white, Louis fits the narrow requirements set forth by Israel Zangwill in his work The Melting Pot. In this sense, my study contrasts previous work, namely that of Yong-Nam Park, by highlighting that the myth of the Melting Pot makes room for people of various sexualities so long as they are white.

How does the ABILITY OF PEOPLE TO ASSIMILATE INTO THE Melting Pot change or stay the same over intersecting lines of identity?

I am analyzing an interaction between Louis, one of the protagonists of the play, and Belize, the only person of color in Angels in America. In this interaction, Louis goes on a long-winded rant about assimilation, race, and politics in which he comes to the striking conclusion that race is not a problem in America. Belize, understandably reacts poorly to Louis's assertion as although Louis is marginalized by his identity as a gay man he is still a white man imposing his own privileged understanding of race onto the world which he and Belize occupy very differently. In order to unpack this scene in relation to my larger research question, I will do a close textual analysis of Act Three Scene Two and connect it to the texts we have worked with thus far in lecture and in discussion. Further, I will watch the film adaptation of Angels in America in order to analyze not only what is being spoken by Louis but also how this rant is presented visually.

The image to the right is an old lithograph by C.J. Taylor that depicts Lady Liberty stirring the races of Europe into American citizens.

Essay

Description-Object of study: Act Three Scene Two, more specifically the interaction of Louis and Belize in the coffee shop

The scene opens. Louis sits across from Belize who is dressed in warm earthy tones and bright pops of color while Louis is starkly contrasted in cool tones and neutrals mirroring the contrast between the races of the two men. Louis appears exasperated, almost manic, and puts his hand towards Belizes in a gesture that appears to push Belize away and quiet him. A look of contempt crosses Belize’s face as Louis launches into a rant without breath about the state of America. Louis is gesturing aggressively as if to get his point across through the movement of his hands. He speaks at Belize not with him, leaving room for only “Uh huh”. Louis comes to the grand conclusion that what defines Americans is not race, but politics which he contrasts to the race relations of Europe; Belize is obviously overwhelmed by the irony of his white friend explaining to him, the only person of color in the show, how the race problem in America is minimal. Belize begins to cut off Louis’s rant, which Louis takes as a personal affront, accusing Belize of calling him a racist and playing into the notion that black people in America are antisemitic. Through the interaction, Belize remains calm, his gestures restrained even if his face reflects his disgust with Louis’s rhetoric. Conversely, Louis moves defensively, crossing him arms over his chest and moves more unpredictably and aggressively.

Louis, portrayed by Zachary Quinto, embarks on a long-winded rant to Belize, portrayed by Billy Porter. Courtesy of the New York Theater.

Angels in America is a defining work that continues to dominate the discussion and lexicon of theater today. The work takes on more than its fair share of issues: from LGBT discrimination and the devastation of the AIDS crisis to the impending climate catastrophe that the new millenium beckons. Equally as present is the play’s discussion of race. Act Three Scene Two of Angels in America dissects the problem of the failure of the Melting Pot mythos and the multiplicity of realities in America. The America Louis exists in diverges from Belize’s at the point of race, which Louis cannot accept as Belize points out the irony and problems of his argument that political divisions trump racial divisions in the nation. Unable to accept his own hypocrisy and inability to accept the multiple narratives of America, Louis instinctively becomes defensive and lashes out at Belize rather than confront the problematic nature of his understanding of America. Through this scene, Kushner both amplifies and criticizes the argument about the nature of America set forth by Israel Zangwill in his 1909 work The Melting Pot. Zangwill presents a work that upholds the greatness of the American Melting Pot but emphasizes that only people of European origin may be metaphorically melted. Kushner revisits this argument through the character of Louis, who is so “melted” that he fails to see how race affects the experience of his friend Belize.

The cover artwork for Israel Zangwill's play The Melting Pot. Zangwill's 1909 work both challenges and plays into Kushner's argument, by upholding the Melting Pot mythology but reinforcing its exclusivity to Europeans. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

This scene deconstructs the myth of the Melting Pot by demonstrating how America is experienced unequally by people of different races and highlighting that the mythos is only accepted by those it privileges. Researchers have already dissected and explored the work as it relates to the destruction of the Melting Pot. A paper from Yong-Nam Park published by the Indiana University of Pennsylvania argues,

“Tony Kushner...challenges the judgmental mainstream’s views of homosexuality, and seeks sexual subjectivity in Angels in America. The great melting pot as a metaphor for American society, at least as represented in these superlative contemporary American playwrights’ plays, is nothing but a myth and not a reality. Individuals are not completely melted as one; rather, they challenge the mainstream’s social mores and strive to recover their own autonomous subjectivity” (Park).

Park argues that through the exploration of sexual identity in the play, Kushner is able to demonstrate the failure of the Melting Pot to homogenize its people; people of different sexual orientations challenge the mainstream, demonstrating the diversity of experiences in America. While Park argues that the sexuality of the play’s queer characters, including both Louis and Belize, sets them apart and prevents them from assimilating, I argue that Louis’s sexuality is trumped by his race, allowing him to experience the Melting Pot where Belize cannot.

Another production of the same scene. Belize again characterized very opposite of Louis as he speaks ahead without really acknowledging Belize's presence. Courtesy of the National Theater.

The Melting Pot myth after all comes down to the matter of race. Zangwill’s work is careful to present a vision of an America where all Europeans may be molded into Americans, intentionally excluding people of color. One of Zangwill’s most important characters, a Russian Jewish immigrant named David, proclaims the glory of the Melting Pot: “Germans and Frenchmen, Irishmen and Englishmen, Jews and Russian—into the Crucible with you all! God is making the American” (Zangwill 81). David’s ommission of people of color, including the first indigenous Americans, is telling. The vision of the American Melting Pot, of the Crucible which can allow people to assimilate into Americans, is a vision of whiteness which it constructs only from the various peoples of Europe. In Angels in America, the protagonist Louis is a white man. Louis is allowed to assimilate and experience the American Zangwill constructed because he is white. His assimilation blinds him to the very real and detrimental effect being non-white can have on the American experience as he tells the increasingly skeptical Belize, “Ultimately what defines us isn’t race, but politics” (Kushner 90). Louis is inherently privileged in his ability to see beyond race and view the true defining factor of the American experience as politics.

Louis and Belize in the HBO version of Angels in America. The contrast between the two men is evident in their body language and even clothing differences. Courtesy of HBO

Even the staging and costuming of the two men helps highlight Louis’s ability to assimilate where Belize cannot. The two men are extremely juxtaposed in each version of the production, but no where is it more clear than in the National Theater production. Louis, clad in a muted brown suit, sits next to Belize whose dyed hair, pink pants, and colorfully patterned scarf thrust a spotlight on him. The effect of the costuming makes Belize stand out against the muted, blank background, while Louis blends perfectly in. The differences in wardrobe between the two characters represents their dynamic in the play as a whole. Louis is able to blend in, to assimilate in America and to experience the privileges, like not concerning himself with issues of race, that accompany being successfully accepted by the Melting Pot. In juxtaposition, Belize is not afforded the ability to blend in and assimilate and mimicked by his colorful wardrobe, which makes him stand out from the rest of the set.

Angels in America works in congruence with and adds nuance to the argument set forth in The Melting Pot, and in doing so effectively challenges the work of Yong Nam Park who argues that the homosexuality of the characters prevents them from assimilating and thus challenges the Melting Pot myth. The scene fits in just fine with the Melting Pot myth laid out by Zangwill who argues through his play that anyone can be an American if they have originated from Europe. Ultimately, race triumphs sexuality in the ability of some people to enjoy the privileges of being Americans. My paper is an argument about intersectionality and the importance for nuance in understanding people who share one marginalized identity do not necessarily share every marginalized identity and thus have vastly different experiences existing in America.

Bibliography

C.J. Taylor, "The Mortar of Assimilation--And the One Element that Won't Mix," chromolithograph, Puck, 26 June 1889, available from Michigan State University Museum, Immigration and Caricature: Ethnic Images from the Appel Collection, http://museum.msu.edu/Exhibitions/Virtual/ImmigrationandCaricature/7572-126.html

“Episode 3.” Angels in America, written by Tony Kushner, directed by Mike Nichols, HBO 2003.

Kushner, Tony. Angels In America : a Gay Fantasia on National Themes. New York:Theatre Communications Group, 1995.

Park, Yong-Nam, ""The Melting Pot Where Nothing Melted": The Politics of Subjectivity in the Plays of Suzan-Lori Parks, Wendy Wasserstein, and Tony Kushner" (2008). Theses and Dissertations (All). 809. https://knowledge.library.iup.edu/etd/809

Zangwill, Israel. The Melting Pot, The Macmillan Company, 1914.