Tony Kushner’s Angels in America (A Gay Fantasia on National Themes) is a revered modern drama; praised as a piece of complex, quizzical, and clever queer theatre that employs magic realism with a splash of Brecht. Though Tony Kushner manages to represent voices of varying and even opposing perspectives, every character has multiple dimensions and a specificity of development…except for Belize. Belize is the only character of color in Angels in America and each character is written so specifically that there is little wiggle room for otherwise. While Kushner hits high marks with the reality of Belize living in such a white world, the gravity of this reality is not fully realized when it comes to seeing how Belize navigates the world as a queer black mxn and how endangered he is to be living in this time. Belize exists in this world to remind us of the flaws in each character-especially the nuance of their whiteness-and to be an undervalued yet convenient educator. Norman Arriaga is a token. For a queer afro-latinx drag queen in the 1980s and the 1990s, Belize’s world is: the Harlem ball scene in Paris Is Burning, it’s the War on Drugs, it’s the People vs OJ Simpson, it’s Steen Fenrich, it’s the new Jim Crow. Kushner does a great disservice to Belize by creating his character in such a half-assed manner. The choices Kushner makes such as to have the actor playing Belize to double as Mr. Lies, Belize as Roy Cohn’s nurse, and Belize’s call-out relationship with Louis, lend Belize to be a singled out gay black man in a sea of neoliberal mayonnaise that continues to shut him out with microaggressions, ignorance, and systemic racism; and henceforth, the problem with this Belize, is he serves as a catalyst for the overt and unchanging vehicle of white supremacy that manages to manifest itself in this hot mess of a lasagna play.
Harper does not mention Mr. Lie’s skin color or race, though he is inherently black as written as to be doubled by the actor play Belize; even if Mr. Lies is given to an actor of a separate track in a production, Mr. Lies is written as a black caricature and is therefore, often played as such. Kushner indicates that Mr. Lies is to be “in style of dress and [have] speech he suggests a jazz musician” (p.4). It is humorously painful at how this description is the least offensive way he describes this minstrel role. It is no secret that jazz is a black art form which skyrocketed during the Harlem renaissance and then appropriated, co-opted, and whitewashed. I find it would be a stretch to imagine Kushner purposefully wrote Mr. Lies to illuminate Harper’s (forbidden) fetishization of black men. Though their relationship inherently creates these implications in Harper as a (white) character, these words and characters are all born out of the playwright’s subconscious first and foremost. Mr. Lies does not vocalize his being black or Harper’s whiteness and it is curious to wonder why this is the manifestation of Harper’s imaginary friend. Why is he black? Does he have to be?
Mr. Lies is like a “Magical Negro” within a “Magical Negro”, who operates like a butler and like a genie to Harper. His character is desexualized with his rejections of Harper’s advances: “it’s against the by-laws of the International Order of Travel Agents to get involved with clients. Rules are rules. Anyway, I’m not the one you really want.” (p.107). This is moment is evocative of the pattern of either de-sexualization or hyper-sexualization of black and brown people on stage, in literature, on screen, and in real life.
Sure, this is a fantasia; it’s a gay fantasia and queer theatre is known for giving us camp, drag, and spectacle. But Kushner is specific and methodical in his doubling. For example, the nurse Emily, The Homeless Woman, and Sister Ella Chapter are written to be played by the same actor playing The Angel. Another example being Prior to play the Man in the Park-though IC’s production did not honor this to offer more roles to more students, this choice adds another complex layer and difficulty in watching or reading this scene. Mr. Lies is a caricature of generic and commodified blackness and black entertainment from his attire, speech, and eventual playing of the oboe. The above quoted excerpt a minstrel show script in the stage directions alone.
Kushner fools us with great cosmic yet intentional coincidence that Belize is Roy Cohn’s nurse when he is officially on his deathbed. The audience already knows Roy Cohn to be a foul-mouthed, rude, arrogant asshole and Belize to be outspoken against stupid white people, so the audience is already at the edge of their seat, drooling at the mouth. Roy’s declaration that it is his “constitutional right” to (request) a white nurse sets the stage for the gratuitous foul language that ensues (p.151). This is probably the laziest coincidence Kushner could’ve written, as it makes it too easy for him to absolve the racism in the other white characters-inherited from Kushner himself-with Roy’s overt racism hiding and overpowering everyone else’s normative bigotry and bias. Roy Cohn assures Belize that he is “not a prejudiced man” compared to real racists: “these racist guys…too rigid. […] I save my hate for what counts” (p.154). It is unclear whether Roy is genuinely racist or just likes seeing Belize riled up and offended. Perhaps he just thinks political correctness is silly. There is obviously some delusion and delirium in Roy, but is the audience supposed to know what is the real obnoxious Roy and what is the Roy who is in excruciating pain? The harmful language that takes places during most of Belize and Roy’s sense together feels contrived and farcical, and there is an element of excuse that Kushner offers Roy Cohn-he can be offensive and it’s all fun yet sad because Roy is dying and there is enough room to sympathize with Roy; even Belize cannot defend himself as he typically would because of the face he is at work and it is generally considered bad taste to fight with people who are dying.
Much of Belize’s appearances serve as black caucuses to call out foolish white behavior which liberal and liberal white folks alike are ready to get off; a rampant and extant phenomenon of white people enjoying, almost with sexual pleasure, a white person getting called out for being racist-which white neoliberals often enjoy as much as they do a good (black) trauma porn. This can be drawn back to the popularity of minstrel shows in the Northern United States.
For a white male playwright to write derogatory and pejorative comments referencing an (ethnic) group he is not a part of, it begs the question of how effective the inclusion of such offensive language, behavior, and images are and if that grants him the permission and forgiveness for using such language. Has he read his own script aloud? This is another unfortunate phenomenon that is distasteful and exploitative: writing racist characters and foul-mouthed black characters just for the sake of being able to drop “nigger” as many times the masterful writer likes; not to mention all the white actors auditioning, performing, and reading for all these characters with their easy pass/free pass. While there is an opportunity for reclamation and empowerment on behalf of the black actor, there is an unsettling concern for the intentions and interests of the white actors, writers, and directors gratuitously using racist slurs; from Tony to Kushner to Quentin Tarantino.
Louis insulation that the United States of America’s greatest concern and problem is not racial tensions, but politics in general (p.93-100). Louis asserts the adamant position that America is post-racial and that he assures Belize that he is not a racist; well, maybe he is a racist, he admits (p.98). Louis offers Belize unsolicited and inappropriate theories, but Belize is not given even adequate time to critique all the problematic students from Louis. Act II, Scene II of Millenium Approaches is upon first read, commendable for its nuance critique of neoliberalism, however it is at the expense of embarrassing and upsetting the only character of color, Belize, with a “pale, pale white polemics” and “racial insensitivity” that is already exhibited and exuded by the toxic whiteness and privilege of the leading characters (Roy, Joe, Prior, and Louis) (p.99). Louis’s failure to hear and comprehend Belize’s words points to this larger pattern for not only Louis, but all of the white characters, who are educated by Belize, but do not change their ways. Belize is often educating other characters, but it is not your black friend’s job to call you out on all your problematic behavior. Louis does not change his ways and continues his ignorant tirades into the Epilogue and it is lost on me how Belize has so much patience for him. Not only does Belize only exist to serve Louis in his education, his words are not taken seriously or to heart, invalidating the significance of Belize as a character any insight he may offer the characters and larger audience.
The characters do not respect, change, or listen to Belize’s valid criticism making him not only a tokenized, “magical Negro”, but an unhelpful and unsuccessful one at that. It gives an impression that the characters’ neglect in recognizing the wisdom in Belize’s third eye advice, is an indicator of the ignorance and failure on behalf of Kushner to take criticism on his problematic behavior, language, and perspectives and yet the simultaneous hypocrisy and irony of his writing of Belize which acknowledges his validity of the arguments this character makes which all go in one ear and out the other. Only louis plays the “race card” in verbal conversation as he is the only one who speaks about race (relations) explicitly with Belize while the other characters do not ever have a chance to show their true racist colors; an exception to this is of course, Roy Cohn, who’s presence in the play (considering his extreme and exacerbated crude manner and conservative views) makes all the other white people in the play look good because they’re not as (outwardly) racist. Further excusing smaller moments of microaggressions and backhanded compliments like when Prior uses his deathbed status as permission to be “politically incorrect”.
We only see Belize when he is comforting Prior, challenging Louis, fighting Roy, and harper’s valium-trip guide manifested through the hallucinated caricature of Mr. Lies. Though Belize is written to be outspoken with a take no prisoners attitude, he seems to have a bottomless bucket of patience and tolerance for the hypocrisy mediocrity and bullshit that all the white characters indulge in. in fact, Belize could be the character with the least flaws and his only “problem” is (systemic) racism. most of the white characters spend the play embarrassing themselves and overreacting to trivial problems and yet it is strange that Belize is even here at all because as a magical negro”, he is not able to save or rescues any of the white people from their toxic whiteness.
Are we to assume that when we don’t see Belize, Belize is having a life attending balls, hanging out with his friends of color, having his own family drama and sexcapades? Unlike the white characters with just as many/few appearances like Hannah Pitt, all of Belize’s scenes are to serve his scene partners; like The Angel except The Angel is given weight in her absence and symbolism. We know Belize but only is the way we know flamboyant, outspoken, black people; whether an audience member knows this real person or the numerous iterations of caricatures and stereotypes. Did Kushner think we wouldn’t see Belize as a caricature or stereotype with the tactic of making all the white people around him much more flamboyant and dramatic? Of course, Belize is level headed and calm compared to the likes of Roy, Prior, Harper, Joe, and Louis. Although, Belize’s double consciousness alone, does not deserve a prize. Fortunately, this is not a book, but a play, which gives actors the opportunity to muster up, create, and finesse some justice for Belize-and black people everywhere-in their portrayals of Belize.
A cishet white male classmate of mine asked me (read: sealioned me), “do you think, in your opinion, Tony Kushner succeeds in writing Belize?” My elongated series of answers did not suffice his masturbatory inquiry. To answer the white neoliberal misogynistic troll-who had never heard of drag let alone its origins: If Tony Kushner set out to successfully write three-dimensional black character in Belize, no he did not succeed. If Kushner meant to write Belize as the shoulder fairy to hear all the white characters troubles, while also avoiding being called a racist for not having characters of color, then he certainly succeeded in falling short in the phenomenon that is disappointing cis white gay men.