Angels in America is the perfect story to seek out for Easter and Passover


Tony Kushner’s epic, multi-part play tackles identity, faith, politics, history, sexuality, AIDS and the American Dream. It’s exactly the story we should seek out around Easter and Passover.

In a New Yorker profile, Marianne Elliott — the director of the latest production of Angels in America, which just opened on Broadway — confessed that she’s “not the best choice for this play.”

“I’m female, I’m English, I’m not in any way Mormon or Jewish. I wasn’t affected by AIDS directly,” she explained, “So there are lots of reasons why I shouldn’t be doing it. But I feel like it is my story.”

I’m not English, but otherwise Elliott’s words exactly describe my relationship to Tony Kushner’s play, the first part of which originally premiered in 1991. I rented a copy of the 2003 miniseries adaptation of Angels in America — the one starring Meryl Streep, Emma Thompson and Al Pacino — from my college library during the spring of my freshman year. It blew me away.

I cried for a good portion of its six-hour running time. In fact, I had the exact reaction that my lapsed-Catholic dad wanted me to have when he showed me Ben-Hur: wonder and fullness and warmth. (In case you hadn’t guessed, I did not feel the same connection to Ben-Hur. At all.)

Ever since that first viewing, I’ve considered Angels in America my go-to religious epic. It is a sprawling tale about struggle, perseverance, faith and triumph. For that very reason, I think it’s a narrative that everyone should seek out, especially around Easter and Passover.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with the play, it takes place in New York City during the peak of the AIDS crisis. The action revolves around Prior Walter, a young gay man who is infected. Prior’s lover, Louis, and friend Belize are also main characters, as are closeted law clerk Joe Pitt, his wife Harper, his mother and Roy Cohn. Yes, that Roy Cohn.

AIDS serves as the story’s catalyst, but the play also delves into much more: Jewish and Mormon culture, Cohn’s many conquests and misdeeds, Reagan-era politics, etc. As clichéd as this sounds, the play is really about America in all its shame and glory.

Oh, there’s also an angel who descends from on high (well, bulldozes through the ceiling, really) to inform Prior that he’s a prophet and must tell the world to stop evolving and progressing. To stop moving.

It’s a lot, but then, so is any epic worth your time.

The reason Angels in America works so well as an Easter or Passover narrative is because its characters have the sneaking suspicion that something big, biblical even, is coming. Since they don’t have the audience’s vantage point, they aren’t sure if that something is good or bad or both or neither.

Much like the players in the Passover and Easter tales we know by heart, Prior and company are stuck in the middle of great hardship and terror. They are unsure if they’ll make it through in one piece. Prior doubts he’ll live to see his mid-30s; Louis is grasping with the fact that his politics are much more compassionate than he is as a person; Joe is paralyzed with self-disgust and fear; and Harper is crushingly disappointed in her life and in herself.

The curious combination of dread and anticipation that Angels in America captures is something many citizens in America are feeling right now, and have felt since Trump’s election. Some days it seems like the world really is ending. Others, it’s as if we’re on the cusp of something remarkable, something that is going to crack history wide open. To paraphrase Tony Kushner’s dialogue — sometimes it feels like the election was just the darkness before the dawn.

I certainly want that to be true, and that’s how Angels in America frames most of its characters’ crises. As is fitting for Easter and Passover — holidays that celebrate rebirth and freedom, and great joy following great grief — the play concludes on a note of hope. Addressing the audience, Prior proclaims:

"This disease will be the end of many of us, but not nearly all, and the dead will be commemorated and will struggle on with the living, and we are not going away. We won’t die secret deaths anymore. The world only spins forward. We will be citizens. The time has come. Bye now. You are fabulous, each and every one. And I bless you: More Life. The Great Work Begins."

Just reading those words gives me chills, the type I had when my Romantic Lit professor described the idea of the sublime. Angels in America is nothing if not awe-inspiring in its scope and magnitude. Whenever I watch the miniseries — and when I caught the London run of Elliott’s production thanks to National Theatre Live — I feel as though I am standing on the precipice of something much bigger than myself. Which, of course, I am.

This sensation is one I expect many people encounter this time of year, as they consider the stories about Moses leading his people to freedom, or the Crucifixion and Resurrection. It’s a feeling others might recognize from watching a religious epic or consuming any inspirational narrative.

Angels in America is all about the hope that, after a long, difficult winter, spring will come. That happier, better days will return.

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The Angels in America miniseries is available on HBO Go and HBO Now. The play will run on Broadway through July 1.