Instructors’ Teaching Experience
I have found this play to be very productive and engaging for my students. The subject matter, AIDS and homosexuality, are familiar to the students but the play’s historical context provides a means for them to assess the change in values and perceptions while still being “relatable.” The students also respond to the charged relationship between Prior and Louis, frequently puzzle over and complain about the fantasy sequences, struggle with their feelings about Joe and Louis’ relationship, and finally, the how to deal with Roy Cohn. I have taught just Part One in the past and the lack of resolution of all the plot elements was frustrating to my students. Rather than teach two different plays, I teach the entirety of Angels in America and have enjoyed teaching it. [LeDon Sweeney, firstname.lastname@example.org]
Discuss the staging of the play. There several scenes in which different conversations are occurring on the stage. In reading the play, students are often confused and lose track of who said what. In examining how these scenes are staged, students are made aware of how the physical set up can affect their understanding of plot. There are also some explicitly sexual scenes, discussing staging (or turning it into an assignment) allows them to think about how the portrayal on the stage might affect the audience’s reactions and sympathies for various characters.
Religion and Faith
As the title implies, there are angels in the play. You might have students describe or write out their own impression of what angels look like, how they speak, what they do before they reach Part Two. Kushner’s portrayal of angels is likely to be very different from their own. The question for them is why? Is there a tradition he is drawing from in how the angels speak, what they claim their job is, and how Heaven is portrayed (Heaven looks like San Francisco after the 1906 Earthquake)?
Religion and Faith
Harper and Joe Pitt are members of the Church of Latter-Day Saints. You can have your students learn about the faith and have them discuss how the LDS faith is portrayed in the play; how has it affected or shaped Harper and Joe.
Roy Cohn is self-described as a “heterosexual man … who fucks around with guys” (Kushner P126.96.36.199). Your students are likely to view Roy as a closeted homosexual. Roy, however, never identifies as homosexual or gay. Here is an opportunity to get your students to discuss the relationship between behavior and identity. Is being “gay” just a matter of who one’s sexual partner is? To make it more real, you can introduce the phrase “men who have sex with men” (MSM) to them. MSM is used by public health officials to talk about men who have sex with men but do not identify as homosexual.
Nature of Love
Louis abandons Prior after Prior is hospitalized. Though Louis has moved out on Prior, he insists that he loves Prior. In Part One, Act 3, Scene 2, Louis has conversation with Prior’s best friend, Belize. During the course of the conversation the phrase “Real love isn’t ever ambivalent” comes up. I have used this phrase as the cornerstone of an essay prompt asking students to argue whether they agree or disagree with the phrase.
The play makes many references to historical figures, such as Joseph McCarthy, J. Edgar Hoover, and Ronald Reagan. I have the students discuss their knowledge of the eighties and what was known about AIDS, how it was perceived, and how the U.S. government responded to the disease. This is approach is useful early on but students become less concerned about the historical context after about Act 2 of Part One. [LeDon Sweeney, email@example.com]
In 2003, HBOFilms released a two part miniseries of Angels in America. The entire piece runs 352 minutes, but is useful as a way of discussing staging choices of selected scenes.