actors, angels, and america By Nayesha Gandotra

A still from Angels in America, the HBO miniseries. Source: FilmAffinity

What do the dual roles of actors in 'Angels in America' tell us about the nature of America and the ways in which it performs and manifests itself?

Picture this: an old man- bent, with white hair and crooked teeth and wrinkles that speak of his age. He is harsh and honest because his life has made him so- and he is unapologetic about it. He speaks of a great journey completed by a not so great woman; of hopes and dreams of acceptance that lay waiting to be buried with her; of the shifting of a people, a home.

Picture this: a smartly dressed woman, clearly tired and uncomfortable- in her hands she holds two suitcases that look too heavy to carry. She is wandering, lost- and yet she is commanding, righteous; confident in her own superiority. It is through this sheer fullness of her presence that she commands answers out of people, forcing others to acknowledge her presence even in a city that is not her own.

Picture this: a ghost, a shimmering gray being who was once a lively girl. She is prim and proper in her manner, yet there is something hard around her eyes that's made its home there after too many disappointments, too much pain. The dramatically painted set of her mouth is twisted in a cruel smile- yet despite how foreboding and revengeful she looks, she sings in the most beautiful voice.

Meryl Streep as The Rabbi (Left), Hannah Pitt (Top Right), and Ethel Rosenberg (Bottom Right) in Angels in America

Image Credits: Courtesy Buzzfeed, Pinterest, The Artifice

These are the three major characters played by Meryl Streep in the HBO miniseries adaptation of the play "Angels in America" by Tony Kushner, and the objects of my study for the final project. Since I first saw the show, I was fascinated by how the same actors portray multiple- and completely differing- characters in the series. I wanted to know more about the reasoning behind such a move and how the pluralism of roles hints at a pluralism of America itself. For my essay, I'll be focussing on the characters played by Meryl Streep (The Rabbi, Mrs. Pitt, and Ethel Rosenberg), and bring out the key differences in the America these characters represent.

The themes of Angels in America are also seen in the play 'Twilight: Los Angeles" by Anna Deavere Smith, where Smith plays multiple characters herself. The two works clearly demonstrate how the same actor can be made to dress differently, speak in a different accept, and behave differently to portray different characters. They also explore the underlying theme that all humans are essentially the same, just painted differently due to our experiences.

Jews migrating to America. Courtesy, KBPS

The monologue of Rabbi Isidor in Act 1 Scene 1 talks a little more about this. He speaks of Sarah Ironson as not a person but a people- the Jews. According to him, she made a great journey across the world, carrying the the cultures of Lithuania and Russia on her shoulders. He talks about how the early Jew migrators expected America to accept them readily, and how in reality, America was a 'melting pot where nothing melted'. This point of view is extremely relevant even today, as according to a study by the Pew Research Center, 58% of American people think that race relations in America are "bad", and 53% people believe they're getting worse. Also, in a recent study conducted reveals that Iranian-American Jews (not the Muslims), feel most keenly that Euro-Americans keep them at a distance. This clearly points towards a divide between Americas, which conflicts with the happy "melting pot" vision seen by David Quixano in "The Melting Pot"

"...so that you would not grow up here, in this strange place, in the melting pot where nothing melted." (rabbi Chemelwitz, act 1, scene 1)
The America they all migrated for. Image by Nayesha Gandotra

He also talks about how the culture of the Jews is being overwritten by American culture- which brings to attention the very important point of acceptance of pluralism in America. In a series about Jewish Americans, David Grubin talks about the steps early migrators took to blend into the American society- like learning English, adopting American dresses and customs, and enrolling their children in American schools. This is again highlighted in "Angels", as the Rabbi points out to Louis that Jews believe in guilt, not forgiveness (which the catholics believe in). This shows that Louis is not very religious.

"She was the last of the Mohicans, this one was. Pretty soon… all the old will be dead" (rabbi Chemelwitz, act 1, scene 1)
Supporters of the Rosenbergs protest. Courtesy, YouTube

The character of Ethel Rosenberg builds on this idea of American culture and loyalty. At the time of the Rosenberg trial, many people supported them, leading to multiple protests to drop the charges against the Rosenbergs. Yet despite the cloudiness surrounding the involvement of the Rosenbergs in Russia's spying game, Roy Cohn persecuted the Rosenbergs aggressively, because he considered them traitors- in fact, he was the one who pushed for a death penalty for them. Hence, in a way, Ethel's character represents an America that isn't all sunshine and diversity- it represents the harsh undercurrent of America, where being different might just mean having to choose between being swept away with the tide- or drowning against the force of it.

"That sweet unprepossessing woman, two kids, boo-hoo-hoo, reminded us all of our little Jewish mamas—she came this close to getting life; I pleaded till I wept to put her in the chair....Why? Because I fucking hate traitors." (Roy Cohn, act 3, scene 6)
America- The melting pot that wouldn't melt. Courtesy, People For the American Way.

Finally, the character of Hannah Pitt (Joe's mother) represents the 'majority' of America, in a stark contrast against the other two characters Meryl Streep plays. This is another statement on the multiple identities America takes- and how some identities come from places of privilege and advantage, while others don't. In the first scene she's introduced in, we see her being very harsh on her son and displaying orthodox religious tendencies on finding out that he's gay. Once again, this shows us the America of intolerance- just from the other side. In a later scene, we see how she handles herself when she's lost on the streets of New York. The way she talks, and the way she expects people to unconditionally help her screams of white privilege, and we can see from her behavior with the homeless woman (who was played by Emma Thompson; another example of duality) that she is used to people listening to her and having her way. All of this represents white America, where people consider themselves entitled to a lot of things and often take advantage of that without considering its impacts on other ethnicities.

Emma Thompson as a homeless woman in Angels in America. Courtesy, Fanpop

These three characters seem to have nothing in common on the surface, yet they all serve to bring to life the idea of America. Hannah Pitt showcases the conventionalism of America, where white supremacy is very real and being different is frowned upon. Rabbi Isidor brings to light the multiculturalism of America, and how this country is a chance to start over for millions of people undertaking magnificent journeys. The ghost of Ethel Rosenberg highlights the wrath of America, and how despite how cruel this country may look like on the surface, it is indeed a nurturing ground that destroys you to build you up better. All of this, to me, proves that multiple Americas do exist in the minds of people, and that they may one day be joined in a way that seems too idealistic now, but might not be then.

The blue beauty of pluralism in America. Image credits: Intiman Theatre, The New York Times, Newberry Library


Angels in America, Tony Kushner

The Melting Pot, Israel Zangwill

Twilight: Los Angeles, Anna Deavere Smith

The Jewish Americans, David Grubin

Shari Paige, Elaine Hatfield, Lu Liang. "How welcome do Iranian-Americans feel in their homeland? Perceptions of social distance among Muslim, Jewish, and Non-Religious Iranian-American adults." Springerplus, 2015; 4: 747.

Shmoop Editorial Team. "Angels in America, Part One: Millennium Approaches Spirituality Quotes Page 2." Shmoop. Shmoop University, Inc., 11 Nov. 2008. Web. 18 Nov. 2019.



Shmoop Editorial Team. "Hannah Pitt in Angels in America, Part Two: Perestroika." Shmoop. Shmoop University, Inc., 11 Nov. 2008. Web. 18 Nov. 2019.