Angels in America, Part One: Millennium Approaches
by Tony Kushner
Where It All Goes Down
New York City, 1985-1986
Angels in America is set in the 1980s, during Ronald Reagan's presidency. Being a political play, we hear quite a bit about the president. Reagan was the most beloved recent conservative president, and had a huge impact on shaping America as we know it today. As we see in the play, he gave hope to many conservatives. On the flip side, however, his administration has been widely criticized for its long silence regarding the AIDS epidemic in America. Many LGBT activists have accused the administration of ignoring the disease because it was thought to mostly impact gay men and African Americans. Thousands of Americans, many of them gay men, died before the administration formally acknowledged the disease. A whole movement arose with the slogan "Silence = Death."
Want to learn more about Reagan-Era America? Check out our US history guide.
The Real World
The majority of Angels in America is set in New York City in the 1980s, during Ronald Reagan's presidency. We zip around from the characters' apartments in Manhattan and Brooklyn, to fancy Manhattan restaurants, to hospitals, a cemetery, Central Park, the offices of the Brooklyn Federal Court of Appeals, and even an abandoned lot in the Bronx. The wide variety of urban locations that Angels takes us to lends to the epic feeling of the play. If the whole thing were bottled up in one character's apartment, it just wouldn't have quite the same scope, now would it?
Of course, the play becomes even more epic when other cities come into the mix. For one scene at least, we visit Salt Lake City, Mormon capital of the world, where we watch Joe's mother Hannah prepare to sell her house and move to – where else? – New York. Hannah's friend, Sister Ella Chapel, is worried about Hanna leaving Salt Lake and warns, "This is the home of saints, the godliest place on earth [...]. Every step a Believer takes a way from here is a step fraught with peril" (2.10.27).
Hannah's friend seems particularly worried that Hannah is moving to New York, a place that doesn't exactly have a reputation for godliness. The contrast between the two cities seems to be particularly relevant to Joe. While growing up in Salt Lake City, he was taught by his Mormon faith that homosexuality is a sin. Now that he's in New York, he's taken to going on long walks in the gay cruising sections of Central Park. Every step he takes seems to lead him further away from Salt Lake and the morals that the city instilled in him.
Angels also takes us into the minds of its characters. We are frequently escorted into Harper's valium-fueled hallucinations. There we meet her mystical travel agent buddy, Mr. Lies, who eventually whisks her away to her own imagined version of Antarctica, a magical place complete with an Eskimo (even though there are no Eskimos in the real Antarctica).
Harper's hallucinations also take her into another character's dream. When Prior dreams of putting on tons of makeup before a light-up mirror, Harper somehow manages to appear. Though the characters have never met, they seem to be sharing a dream. This scene seems to be set in a nexus of dreams, a place where humans leave their bodies and can share their deepest fears and hopes.