A Play About AIDS Wins Tony Awards, and No One Says 'HIV'

Andrew Garfield accepts the Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role in a Play for Angels in America onstage during the 72nd Annual Tony Awards at Radio City Music Hall on June 10, 2018 in New York City
Theo Wargo/Getty Images for Tony Awards Productions

I love award shows. I watch them, usually alone in my house, yelling at the television and posting on Facebook my endless opinions about what I see. I comment on the dresses, especially during the Oscars and Golden Globes red carpet pre-shows. I take notice of who is wearing #TimesUp buttons, an ACLU ribbon, or some other small political message attached to their collar. As a radical faggot, though, I'm mostly waiting for people to say something about the current political moment and rally the attendees and the viewers to get excited for some change. I'm waiting for the art to be clearer in its political statement.

As usual, this past Sunday, June 10, I watched the Tony Awards -- the highest honor given to plays currently running on Broadway. This year, much attention is being given to Robert De Niro's comment about the 45th president of the U.S. On live TV, De Niro started his comments by claiming to have one thing to say: "Fuck Trump!" The crowd was elated, cheering, rising to their feet, clearly on the side of justice, ready to speak out against the heinous reality of our world created by the likes of a President Donald Trump. Unsurprisingly, many were offended by De Niro's choice of words. Some have since reminded him that we have been told, "When they go low, we go high." But Robert De Niro's use of the F-bomb was hardly the most offensive word said -- or not said -- at the Tonys.

Andrew Garfield, who won for his role as Prior Walter, a gay man with AIDS in the 1980s, began the night with a beautiful acceptance speech. People have been pulling quotes from his speech and posting them all over social media, celebrating LGBTQ community resistance. He said:

At a moment in time, where maybe the most important thing that we remember right now is the sanctity of the human spirit, it is the profound privilege of my life to play Prior Walter in Angels in America because he represents the purest spirit of humanity. And especially that of the LGBTQ community. It is a spirit that says no to oppression. It is a spirit that says no to bigotry, no to shame, no to exclusion. It is a spirit that says we are all made perfectly. That we all belong. So, I dedicate this award to the countless LGBTQ people who have fought and died to protect that spirit, to protect that message -- for the right to live and love as we are created to.

This is a beautiful message, and Garfield is right that we must celebrate the "sanctity of the human spirit." And yet, how did he not mention HIV or AIDS when making his acceptance speech?

Steven Thrasher, author, reporter, and doctoral candidate at New York University, wrote an essential article about the failures of this revival of Angels in America. In it, he highlights the ways in which the truth of the epidemic today, the impact HIV is having on black communities, is made completely invisible in the play. Not only that, the one black character allowed in the story exists simply to take care of white gay people. All the while, Broadway is ignoring essential stories by black gay men who wrote prolifically about the reality of HIV and who offered genius that should be retold, such as Marlon Riggs in Tongues Untied. The revival silenced the reality of black life and death in the face of AIDS, and that silence continued on stage at the Tonys.

The fault of this silence does not lie at the feet of Andrew Garfield alone. Nathan Lane, while celebrating himself and his personal growth over the years as he accepted his Tony Award, kept up the wall of silence about HIV. Additionally, and potentially tangentially, while I did tear up listening to the drama club students from Parkland High School sing "Seasons of Love," I cannot help but feel as if this moment further highlights the way Broadway reveres whiteness and ignores black life and death in the face of state, gun, and medical violence.

I remained on the edge of my couch at home waiting for someone at some point to actually talk about the reality of HIV in the U.S. today. I waited for someone to talk about the defunding of programs that are leading to increased community viral loads in black and brown communities. I was waiting for someone to talk about HIV criminalization and the ways stealing black people out of the community leads to increased community viral loads in neighborhoods most impacted by mass incarceration. But the silence continued. My last moment of hope was when Angels in America won Best Revival of a play.

The stage was covered in a sea of white people and the producers rambled on a bit before Tony Kushner came to the microphone. I waited as he told us to go see the play. I continued to wait as he told us to go vote in November. And then he closed by shouting out happy birthday to Judy Garland. That was all. The author of the play, a play that has been heralded as one of the more important plays about HIV, remained silent. We learned well what silence means from artists who were part of ACT UP: Silence = Death. As Steven Thrasher notes in his article, in 2018, Angels in America relies on silence about the lives of those most impacted by HIV today. The revival of this play, without addressing the reality of the world, is Broadway's white culture taking a bow.

It is clear that Andrew Garfield, Nathan Lane, and Tony Kushner do not believe that HIV is an issue today. It is clear that they believe this play is simply about an epidemic of the past. As white gay men living with HIV have more fully suppressed viruses and engage in sex with white men on pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP), the dying of white gay men seems to be coming to an end. Yet, the reality of anti-black racism on this epidemic continues. The lack of equitable access to medical care continues. And the lack of truth-telling by those who have survived while others have died is a great embarrassment for the Tony Awards and for white gay men who refuse to remember that our survival has come at the expense of others.

My prayer is that celebrations like the Tonys can push us to do better and, as we speak out about our failings, may get us closer to the dream worlds we can create full of singing, justice, and choreographed dances. But that cannot happen as long as "The Great White Way" remains devastatingly white.

Rev. Jason Lydon is a Unitarian Universalist community minister and a senior advisor for the Vaid Group, coordinating the National LGBT/HIV Criminal Justice Working Group.