Aids in america By Maddie Mcguill

how does the Aids epidemic in america, as well as its portrayal in "angels in america" highlight the culture of discrimination in america?


In this research site, I plan to analyze the movie adaptation of the play “Angels in America”, but more specifically, how it uses performance to depict the AIDS epidemic in America and its impact. I want to highlight the way that the movie uses a variety of characters who represent different social groups in America to evoke empathy from the audience in a way that allows them to relate to the characters and their experience with their disease, regardless of whether the audience has had any experiences that are remotely similar. I want to talk about how AIDS was stigmatized and lead to people not feeling comfortable to publicly reveal their sexuality, as exemplified by the characters of Roy Cohn and Joe Pitt. I want to specifically talk about the common American experience, that both Roy and Joe shared, in which many Americans feel that they have to choose one of their identities over the other because they often seem to contradict one another., I want to discuss how the movie dives into the impact of AIDS on propelling the gay rights movement. In “Angels in America”, Prior feels that his death is inevitable. He finally gets the will to live after he realizes that his purpose is to continue the “great work.” He is lucky to be able to continue his own life, but he wants to honor the lives of those who have died as a result of AIDS by fighting for gay rights and equality. Ultimately, I hope to examine how Kushner used a wide range of characters to explain what many people experienced as a result of the AIDS disease and what this time revealed about American society. Using the wide breadth of characters across the social spectrum, he is able to relate this story to the average American.

The Angel reveals a book to Prior Walter before giving him the warning to tell all mankind to stop moving


“Angels in America” is a play written by Tony Kushner and is divided into two parts, “Millennium Approaches” and “Perestroika.” The play takes place in the 1980s, when the AIDS epidemic was most widespread. AIDS is a fatal disease that when one contracts the HIV virus, usually through sexual intercourse or blood transfusions, and the virus begins to attack one’s immune system. While the AIDS disease has become less deadly over the years since its reached its height of fatalities in the eighties, the disease continues to affect a large number of people. By the end of 2018, almost 38 million people were living with AIDS globally. In the same year, 770,000 people died because of AIDS while 32 million people have died from AIDS since the start of the epidemic. “Angels in America” centers around the relationships between its characters and the way that those relationships and the characters themselves are affected by the AIDS virus. The depiction of the characters and their relationships helps to examine the way that the virus impacted America as a whole.

“Angels in America” is centered around two characters who have AIDS, Prior Walter and Roy Cohn, and a group of people that are involved in their live, some of whom connect the two characters. Prior Walter is diagnosed with AIDS in the beginning of the play while Roy Cohn is battling a more severe and progressed form of AIDS and is fighting for his life. The play shows how each character and the people that they are close to battle the disease both physically and mentally. It especially highlights the relationship between Prior and his partner, Louis, as well as the relationship between a gay lawyer named Joe, who works for Roy and beings seeing Louis, and his wife Harper, who is addicted to valium. Throughout the movie, Roy becomes progressively more sick, Joe struggles with his marriage and career, and Prior battles challenges in his relationship and mental health as a result of his diagnosis. In an article by the Hollywood Reporter, writer Barry Gorron summarizes the significance of the character’s relationships with one another by remarking that these relationships flush out “broader themes about truth, justice, love, reconciliation, and progress.”

In an article for Vanity Fair, reporter Mike Nichols comments that the characters are important because they represent “the spectrum of American society- homosexuals, Mormons, Jews, blacks, Wasps, Republicans” as they deal with issues such as “life and death, loyalty and betrayal, heaven and hell.” By using characters that represent multiple groups of society and that are facing experiences common to society as a whole, playwright Tony Kushner is able to make “Angels in America” relatable to the average reader of the play (or viewer of the film adaptation). Kushner is then able to use this relatability in order to make the audience more empathetic to the experiences of those who have had AIDS or those who dealt with the hardship of having someone they cared about being diagnosed with the virus.

In Nikki Tundel’s article “How AIDS Changed American Culture”, she discusses how the disease “forced us to talk about end-of-life issues”. In the play, Prior battles with maintaining the will to live as he sees his death as an inevitable fate. He tells the council in heaven that he has more of his life to live. Prior says that while he doesn’t plan to die from AIDS in the near future, many other people will. Therefore he wants to do the “great work”, which is to bring more equality to gay people in the United States. He believes that the dead will be commemorated in doing this, like the dead that are commemorated by the Bethesda fountain.

Tundel also discusses in her article how the AIDS epidemic laid the foundation for gay rights and, eventually, the legalization of gay marriage. At the end of “Angles in America”, Prior, Louis, Belize, and Hannah are shown together at the Bethesda fountain. Prior leaves the group and delivers a monologue to the camera in which he says that “the great work shall continue”, referring to the work that will be done to fight for gay rights and equality in America.

In David J. Jefferson’s article, “How AIDS Changed America”, he discusses the stigmatization of AIDS in which many people referred to it as “gay cancer”, disregarding all of the other people afflicted by the disease, and how many gay men were in denial about the disease when it first began to spread. In “Angels in America”, the character Joe Pitt and Roy Cohn both do not publicly reveal their homosexuality. Roy is a Republican politician who has worked against an antidiscrimination bill. He believes it is vital to his political career to maintain the façade of being heterosexual and even goes so far as to threaten his doctor and nurse to keep his secret. Joe is a Mormon who is married, but ends up in a relationship with Louis, Prior’s ex-boyfriend. He refuses to admit his sexuality to his wife and mother throughout the majority of the movie while trying to maintain his public image. Both Roy and Joe represent the experiences of many Americans who feel that they can not come forward with their sexuality for fear that it will contradict one of their other identities, such as their political or religious identity.

Ultimately, Tony Kushner uses the experiences of his characters in “Angels in America” to explain the impact of AIDS on American culture and what the disease revealed about America as a society. By using characters that represent a large portion of the “spectrum of American society”, Kushner is able to evoke empathy from the audience as he portrays the characters battle with the disease and its effect on their lives.

Above are the characters from the film
Prior is diagnosed with AIDS
Ethel Rosenberg visits Roy Cohn in the hospital
Belize cares for Roy as he gets progressively sicker
The angel appears to prior
Prior and his partner, Louis
Prior, Ethel, Louis, and Belize at the end of the movie
Prior promises to finish the great work
Harper finds out that her husband is gay