No Gods, No Spirits, No Angels: The Religious Experience of Witnessing "Angels in America" as a Queer, Jewish Millennial
In Honor of World AIDS Day
“I watched my friends die,” the pep talk began. “I saw the inside of a paddy wagon more than once. I chained myself to the pews of a church.” This was coming from a theater professor, the day after the 2016 election. I had come into his office minutes earlier, shaken and despondent, telling him I no longer felt I wanted to continue pursuing playwriting.
“No. No. No,” he replied. “Now is when you must throw yourself into your art, full-speed. You cannot back down now. Feel upset today, fine. Take a break, whatever. But you have to get out there and fight tomorrow. I swore years ago I would never have to wear my ACT UP shirt again. But I dug it up this morning, and I’ll be wearing it out there at every protest and demonstration. I sure as hell better see you there, too.”
In my desperate need to understand what he went through, I blurted out, “I’d love to interview you about your experience.” The conversation came to a halt. The pep talk ended there. I had breached the fine line between a curious outsider and an intrusive one.
I encountered this before. When you’re a storyteller, you want to be interested in everybody. You’re taught to ask questions and gather the stories that will inform your work. You can’t write about the human condition if you’re not bearing witness to its many facets. We all want the juicy gossip, the ghost stories, the too-gruesome-to-be-real tales of people overcoming extraordinary strife. Yet that can be dangerous. Growing up Jewish, we’re taught that to remember the Holocaust is to prevent its recurrence, but we’re also taught never to ask about a survivor’s experience unless it is offered. This is the paradox of knowing survivors of tragedy: so many of them want to educate, to prevent history repeating, but their own trauma is often too painful to re-live.
Time and again, I have found the AIDS Crisis, like the Holocaust, to be the great rift between generations. For Jewish descendants of survivors, like some of my friends growing up, the Holocaust was the elephant in the room; something that made family dinners and religious celebrations a point of anxiety. Even if they lived in the most Jew-friendly town in America, survivors are forever looking over their shoulder. Their descendants are taught to as well, even when they’re not sure why. There were days my Jewish friends would tell me about the Holocaust being used as a point of guilt, a way to say, “Stop behaving so selfishly, don’t you remember what your grandfather lived through?” Survivors of the AIDS Crisis will sometimes—maybe inadvertently—scorn queer Millennials for not understanding the agony they encountered. As many of us came of age in the new millennium, perhaps moved away from home or began frequenting gay clubs and bars, we’d each have our own stories of encountering elder gays with one too many drinks in their system, ranting furiously about our privilege, our “never having seen true hardship now that AIDS is gone.”
Of course, HIV and AIDS are not gone, and my generation isn’t blameless for our ignorance. I can’t begin to count how many gay people my age have told me they had never heard of ACT UP or the AIDS Quilt or even the efforts of artists like Keith Haring and David Wojnarowicz. However, many of us want to learn. We want to understand what it must have felt like back then so that we can build stronger bonds with our queer elders. More of us want to educate, because we know the deadly price of ignorance; of thinking that knowledge of our history doesn’t affect us as individuals. After the Pulse shooting, I dived in. I read books on the Crisis, and binged documentaries. Yes, my fury over the Reagan administration’s inaction increased ten-fold. I made it my mission to educate fellow members of the community. But I don’t think I could fully grasp, on a deeply emotional level, what the turmoil must have felt like, until this year.
In March, I returned to my alma mater to see a production of Angels in America, Part I: Millennium Approaches. This is the first in a two-part, seven-hour magnum opus drama written by Tony Kushner. Millennium follows a cavalcade of characters: Prior, the former drag queen diagnosed with AIDS; Louis, the pencil-pushing boyfriend who leaves him; Joe, the closeted Mormon law clerk; Harper, Joe’s equally Mormon, agoraphobic wife who sees less of her husband since he started cruising for sex in Central Park; and Roy Cohn, the evil lackey to Joseph McCarthy, dying of AIDS and denying every word of it. It is a tale of how the AIDS Crisis affected vastly different people, evoked through a “Gay Fantasia on National Themes,” Angels’ eponymous subtitle complete with spirits and giants and fiery biblical set pieces.
I thought I knew what I was in for as I found my seat in the theater, having read the script two years earlier. I figured I would probably cry when Prior screams at Louis, “I’m dying! You stupid fuck! Do you know what that is!” Yet, I was nowhere near prepared. By the end of the 3.5-hour show I was a red-faced, blubbering mess. Something happened to me in that small college theater. Something that made my heart feel altogether light and heavy; something that made my eyes see more clearly. By the time I returned to Chicago, I had had two nights of deep sleep accompanied by vivid dreams of the production. In one dream, I was an actor, and I had to get on stage and deliver a monologue. All the cast and the audience were waiting for me, and I couldn’t remember my lines for the life of me. So I fled to a parking lot and cried. In the other dream, I was an audience member who wandered on stage during a pivotal moment. I couldn’t seem to find my way off stage, and Prior scolded me for not paying attention, for not listening. Coming back to my Midwest studio apartment, I only had one overwhelming conclusion circling my head: I had just had a religious experience.
Western religion and theatre go hand-in-hand. They both involve rituals of an audience congregating for a set time to look at costumed people on a stage and try to glean a message. Theorists like Jill Dolan have asserted that a theater event creates temporary communities out of total strangers experiencing a shared moment. That is what it sometimes feels like to be queer: a community of strangers, desperate to make our pieces fit, coming together through some shared sense of otherness with the world. Seeing Angels for the first time, with Millennial actors, did for me what religion is supposed to do: connect us to our ancestors. I watched my community suffering on stage, and it felt real. It felt more authentic than any other play I had ever seen. The painted-on lesions, the heavy New York accents, even the moment Prior shits his pants and raises his hand to reveal blood (evoking an audible gasp from the audience). For the first time in my life, I felt I could empathize with at least a fraction of what those who survived the Crisis experienced.
Some people laughed when I mentioned how Angels felt like an out-of-body experience, and I was beginning to feel a little silly. Then I talked to Jeffrey James Fox, who played Prior in the University of Michigan production. “I guess, in a way,” he said, “I had a religious awakening.” He started to get choked up as he continued.
“When you’re Jewish, you learn about Jewish heroes and the Holocaust and tangible things that happened. You learn a little about the history of your people. Gay people don’t have heroes for a lot of their life, especially when you’re in the closet for twenty years or more… Like reading about ACT UP, my God! Their own research, their own doctors. They made everything happen on their own, because nobody else would!”
Most profoundly, he said, being in Angels as an openly gay man changed his thinking on how he wants his career to take shape. “I want to devote a good chunk of my career now to giving a voice to people who don’t have them. If I had seen a movie with a gay character when I was younger, imagine how much more comfortable I would’ve been with myself so much sooner! This whole thing…” He trailed off for a moment before concluding, “Yeah. I guess it is religious.”
We are a generation that feels more alienated and disconnected from religion than ever before. Millennials are distancing themselves from the religious practices with which they were brought up, choosing instead to forge bonds through pagan rituals or astrology. For some of us, theater offers a new religion, or at least a supplemental religious experience. It can connect us to the past, distract us from the present, and give us a glimpse into potential futures. For young people like Jeffrey, the history of ACT UP is the history of queer people’s resilience; of being backed into a corner, on the brink of extinction, and responding by rolling up our sleeves and solving the problem ourselves. Millennials, remarkably in tune with the complexity and fluidity of identity, increasingly no longer see themselves in religious stories and traditions. So we seek out other ways to connect to our past. We become the researchers of queer history, we find the forgotten stories, and we gather on stage or on Netflix or in movie theaters, and dammit, we tell the stories ourselves. We make our friends and family listen, so they will learn and fight alongside us for a better future. Out of pure necessity, we become the preachers of our own queer religion.
In October, a man entered the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh and opened fire. I awoke to texts from friends offering sympathy, and read article after article of the “rise” of anti-Semitism in America (it’s always been there, it’s just emboldened now). I felt that creeping sense of guilt I know so well, for not having the “correct” amount of empathetic pain. I struggled to place why I was suddenly so void of feeling over the shooting. Of course I was upset to hear of the murder of fellow Jews, yet I wasn’t surprised. There wasn’t an aching loss and I felt overwhelmingly guilty for that. Why did the Pulse shooting break my heart, keep me in bed for two days, and force me to pen a new play? Why did the Tree of Life (whose alternative name, Simcha, is the same as my Hebrew name) come as no surprise?
Talking about this absence of pain with a friend of mine, I found myself referencing the Judaic aspects of Angels in America, which I had always ignored for the larger queer themes. Yet, I suddenly realized that the shooting didn’t shock me precisely because I was raised Jewish. The emphasis on always being aware—and always being prepared—that the world has tried to wipe us out for thousands of years has been ingrained in me. In a twisted way, Jews are always anticipating the next attempted genocide. There are two large groups that I can call “my people”: Jews and the LGBTQ community. I was shocked by Pulse because I had not yet had the history lessons of “my (queer) people” like the lessons afforded to me by Hebrew school, because queer studies are still “niche.” The culture that encouraged survivors to speak out about their time in the concentration camps had never existed for survivors of the AIDS Crisis or the Upstairs Lounge or Stonewall.
All of a sudden, I understood the religious aspects of Angels in America like never before. The depiction of Heaven as a place equally unfathomable and in disarray, in which Prior delivers a scathing speech that he’d rather live with AIDS than be healthy in Heaven, enforces the Jewish teaching of striving to do good on Earth for the sake of being good and helping others, rather than for the sake of—to steal from The Good Place—an afterlife “moral dessert.” Then there’s Prior’s assertion that God must be dead. It is the play’s most direct reference to what many survivors of the Holocaust felt after they were freed from the camps: God is not coming back.
“And even if He did,” Prior says. “If He ever did come back, if He ever dared to show His face, or his Glyph or whatever in the Garden again. If after all this destruction, if after all the terrible days of this terrible century He returned to see … how much suffering His abandonment had created, if all He has to offer is death …
“You should sue the bastard. That’s my only contribution to all this Theology. Sue the bastard for walking out. How dare He. He oughta pay.”
The monologues that precede both Millennium Approaches, and its successor Perestroika, are intentionally (sometimes literally) preachy. One is spoken by a Rabbi Isidor Chemelwitz, presiding over a funeral, and the other by Aleksii Antedilluvianovich Prelapsarianov, “The World’s Oldest Living Bolshevik.” Rabbi Chemelwitz waxes poetic on how the deceased immigrant laying before him reminds him of, “how we struggled, and how we fought, for the family, for the Jewish home, so that you would not grow up here, in this strange place, in the melting pot where nothing melted.” He lambasts the descendants for giving their children “goyische names,” and assimilating to a kind of America that makes you forget your roots. In Part II, Aleksii’s monologue similarly curses us, for we could not possibly know the struggle he and his comrades overcame for a mere ideological future. That is what Jews and queers and the children of mass terror alike have always heard. The last survivors beg us to listen and to empathize and to never take for granted how fragile our freedoms really are. They make movies, write plays, and do whatever it takes to keep history alive and relevant, and to maintain the spark of hope that maybe we’ll be the generation that finally ends the madness.
My encounter with Angels at Michigan haunted me for days, and I needed a way to get back to that feeling. So, I made a pilgrimage. I found a way to see the show—all seven hours—on Broadway. By happenstance, I chose the day Tony Kushner was in the audience to celebrate the 25th anniversary of opening night. That’s how I knew I was exactly where I was meant to be; like at the end of Sister Act when the Pope shows up to listen to Whoopi’s whipped-into-shape choir. In this long journey to New York and back again, I realized something important: if theater is a religion, you don’t need to see a Broadway production to be transformed by religious text. Yes, Prior Walter’s monologue in Perestroika hit me like an oncoming train when uttered by Andrew Garfield, but that doesn’t mean the same feeling might not be achieved by a queer Millennial performing in a small theater anywhere else in the world. Like anything religious, it is all up to interpretation. As my life experience changes, so too does my understanding of Angels in America.
It’s not that Millennials don’t feel we need organized religion as much anymore. It’s that we’re learning there is an inherent religiousness to simply being human and wanting to fight for a better life for ourselves and for those who come next. Our forebears—professors, mentors, the older queers we meet in bars—may never have the words to express their stories of the AIDS Crisis, or the Holocaust, or the Next Terrible Thing. It is our duty to make ourselves understand. But it seems as though proactivity only comes from awakenings. I hope my fellow Millennials have the kind of religious experience I did. Let it change you. Let it fill your heart. Let it bring us closer to the generations before us, so that we may finally bridge this unnecessarily bitter gap. May you all find something that gives you the courage to scream and shout and demand—as one singular being—the right to a better life.
Eric Grant is a playwright, essayist, and theater-maker based in Chicago. He was an artist-in-residence at The MITTEN Lab in Bear Lake, Michigan, and his work has been presented at the Phoenicia International Festival of the Voice and most recently at Second City's De Maat Theater. You can find him on Instagram and at www.eric-grant.net