A whirlwind of “joyful imagination, linguistic wizardry, mischievous theatricality, vertiginous intellect, daring yet self-aware politics and all-encompassing heart.”
That’s how Lily Janiak of the San Francisco Chronicle describes Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s revival of Tony Kushner’s play Angels in America. This powerful postmodern piece has been performed dozens of times since its initial release in 1991, and each iteration expands upon its themes of queerness, immigration, blackness, and American identity. This essay will investigate the characterization of Norman "Belize" Ariaga as both a guardian angel and haunting ghost for Prior Walter and Louis Ironson in Angels in America. Belize's identity as a black man, gay drag queen, and former nurse all intersect to make him a guiding force for the two white, upper-middle-class gay men struggling with AIDS and their own relationship, but also an eerie reminder that they still hold much more privilege in America than any low-income person of color. In this way, Belize is beginning to do the "Great Work," as Prior describes in the last line of the play, of reconstructing America to be a place where all races, sexualities, and genders can thrive - a burden which inevitably falls on his queer, black back. The source materials for this essay are Angels in America, Part 1: Millennium Approaches and Part 2: Perestroika, the 2003 HBO miniseries adaptation, and the 2018 Berkeley Repertory Theatre production. Since the play’s run finished in July 2018, this analysis will draw upon the play’s program and three reviews of the play.
The story primarily revolves around the pairing of Prior Walter and the Angel (or “Voice”), but another, secondary duo - Prior’s boyfriend Louis Ironson and friend Norman "Belize" Ariaga - is key to understanding the role of angels and identities in Angels in America. Aside from being Prior's ex-boyfriend and current friend, he is also a drag queen and Roy Cohn's nurse. Belize is heavily intertwined in Louis’ life after his AIDS diagnosis, serving as a guiding force that provides equal parts genuine hope and doses of reality when it comes to his relationship with Prior and coming to terms with an incurable and heavily stigmatized disease. In this way, he is Louis’ guardian angel, begging the audience to question whether he exists outside their collective consciousness. In Tony Kushner's original script, it is suggested that the same actor also play Mr. Lies, Homeless Man, and The Angel Europa, which further insinuates an ethereal, magical quality to the man. Belize’s voice and gestures are stereotypically effeminate when talking to Louis, and yet he speaks such profound universal truths so as to make himself seem godly at the same time. This, and more details, are important in framing Belize as an angelic, ghostly figure of queer people of color in times past looking to guide the Americans of today, or at least, Americans of the 1980’s.
In Act III, Scene 2 of Part One: Millennium Approaches, Louis sits with Belize in a coffee shop, ranting about how race in America is purely a point of political struggle, rather than a real issue. Belize nods, listens, and stews in quiet defiance, dryly stating the obvious of what Louis was trying to insinuate: “Here in America race doesn’t count” (Kushner 91). Despite Louis’ protests, Belize recognizes the fundamental differences between their perspectives as a poor black man and a wealthy, white Jewish man, despite both lacking in some form of privilege in America. At one point, it almost seems as if the conversation will turn to an argument in which accusations of antiblackness and antisemitism fly on each side, but Belize is not angry. He is resigned, disappointed, and perhaps saddened at this fact, but not angry. This perhaps serves to subvert a stereotype of the angry black man. He doesn’t attempt to change Louis’ point of view, but merely states his opinion, and, like a ghost, slips away into the next scene (Kushner 94).
In Act IV, Scene 3 of Part Two: Perestroika, Belize talks to Louis in the pouring rain, with a statue of Bethesda the angel behind them, in a sort of beautiful juxtaposition. He tells him an eerily accurate premonition about Roy Cohn, which chills Louis to the bone as if a ghost had just run through him. Belize calls him "pathetic" and scolds his "sorry ass" for abandoning his boyfriend Prior in the hospital in his time of need, just as a guardian angel would (Kushner 93). At the same time, though, he holds back a feeling of pity for Louis, another gay man led astry and confused during the horrors of the AIDS crisis. Belize ends the conversation abruptly, however, by saying "I hate this country. Nothing but a bunch of big ideas and stories and people dying and then people like you” (Kushner 95). This expresses the exasperation people of color feel when they are forced to explain the way the world functions to oppress them, especially to an audience of white men who don’t listen. It's exasperation with the whole system, too; systemic racism, upon which America was built.
In another scene near the end of the HBO miniseries, Belize talks to Roy Cohn about the afterlife, as he’s dying of AIDS. Belize describes heaven as “like San Francisco...overgrown with weeds, but flowering weeds,” in a state of urban decay, of beauty growing out of chaos (Kushner and Costas). Cohn can barely speak in response to Belize’s poetic verse, but it is clear he is not pleased with this vision of the afterlife. It is a world of “racial impurity and gender confusion” where “all the deities are creole, mulatto, brown,” or in other words, everything that Cohn finds undesirable and impure as a conservative senator (Kushner and Costas). How does Belize know all of this? The audience can only assume that Belize has been to Heaven, or perhaps is gifted with some otherworldly sense of sight into the unknown of death. He even knows that in this true paradise, “[Cohn] ain’t there,” because of his racism, sexism, and otherwise horrible treatment of people he deems less than himself (Kushner and Costas). Belize holds an unexpected position of power in this scene, despite being a nurse and him a politician, and his words even suggest that he is satisfied that in death, and being sentenced to hell, Cohn is getting what he deserves.
Right: Caldwell Tidicue as Belize and Stephen Spinella as Roy Cohn in the same production (Kevin Berne, 2018).