Reading Race in 1990s HIV Theater and Film

Senior Editor
Danielle Fuentes Morgan
Matt Morgan

Right now, we're in a moment of reflecting on the art and activism of the first era of the AIDS epidemic. But as various books, films, plays, and even activist formations are being hotly debated in the academy and among a young generation of activists, rarely had I seen an analysis comparing the politics of work of that period, until I read "The Queer of Color and AIDS Performance at the End of the Millennium" in PRE/TEXT: A Journal of Rhetorical Theory, by Danielle Fuentes Morgan, Ph.D., assistant professor of English with Santa Clara University.

In addition to being a scholar in comparative literature, she's also my cousin.

Kenyon Farrow: Tell me about the basic premise of the article.

Danielle Fuentes Morgan: In the article, I'm arguing that there's been sort of a problem, when we look in retrospect; we become kind of conscious of the fact that these preeminent queer, seemingly queer, texts that we had, that sort of brought queerness into the mainstream (in particular, Angels in America and Rent) utilize a queer figure of color to have a certain kind of utility. And that utility ultimately meant that they were very good, that they had to sacrifice in some certain kind of way, and that they ultimately lose subjectivity and become objects, in favor of sort of centering a white male protagonist, either homosexual or heterosexual, either HIV positive or not; but to sort of center these figures and prove their validity and prove their, sort of, goodness by proximity and in comparison.

So, basically, these queer figures of color are used to serve as an other that reminds us, especially in the case of the HIV-positive figures, the white male figures, in Rent and Angels in America, these queer figures of color serve to remind audiences, "Well, at least I'm not that. I deserve my humanity. I deserve my white privilege, ultimately, because I'm not as queer as this figure, or I'm not as … I'm not the object like this person is. I deserve subjectivity," in the face of somebody who is even more marginalized.

KF: Right. You've sort of set up the article to compare Angels in America and Rent to Bill T. Jones's multimedia dance performance Still/Here and Marlon Riggs's documentary Black Is … Black Ain't.

DFM: I think that Black Is … Black Ain't and Still/Here both sort of offer us, not only a black queer reclamation; but also, they still retain their significance, and almost feel like a revelation in a lot of ways, because they are so thoughtful and deliberate in the way that they frame black people as deserving humanity. Not in contrast to anyone else, necessarily, but that black people deserve humanity with a period at the end of that sentence, not because of anything else.

I love, especially in Black Is … Black Ain't, the way Marlon Riggs talks about the beauty of black people, and also that it's not just sort of a mythical realm of monolithic blackness for everybody, where black is beautiful all the time. He's saying that there are parts that are problematic, parts that are troubling, but that there's something wonderful about that dynamic; also, that there's something beautiful in black people, in our existence as it is, that it doesn't need to serve some sort of purpose, that black people don't have to be especially good or paired with whiteness, as we're seeing in these other [works]. Black people don't have to -- queers of color, in particular, don't have to -- take on these service roles to ultimately be provided humanity, or sacrificial humanity, as the case seems to be, in a lot of these other works.

Bill T. Jones does something, I think, very similar when he talks about the nature of fear, of the concerns about your own mortality, the way he was reckoning with -- same as Marlon Riggs, reckoning with his own mortality throughout this, and that there is some sort of a reclamation in being able to sort of name yourself, name your fears, name the nuances of your very existence, without having to think about what that's going to do to help somebody else be proven to be worthy of … what am I trying to say? Without your life ultimately being the symbol that inspires somebody else to live.

KF: Yeah. So, you kind of moved exactly where I wanted to go. You know that I was an actor at one point, but I almost played Belize in a production of Angels in America.

DFM: Oh! I did not know that. Oh, wow.

KF: And the only reason I didn't get it was because I was too young.

I have a very different read on it now than had I gotten cast in it then. I just want to hear you talk about how you see these characters, Belize and Angel specifically, in the context of Angels and Rent.

DFM: Sure. So, to start with Angel in Rent: Angel becomes the sort of personification of absolute goodness. We're supposed to look at Angel and that relationship with Collins, who is another queer figure of color in Rent, as this admirable relationship. We're supposed to love them. And we do. I mean, that is, in a lot of ways, the most stable and also most nuanced really loving, genuine relationship that we are privy to throughout Rent. It is the healthiest relationship of them all -- the most emotionally healthy and uplifting relationship of any that are portrayed.

And yet, we are also supposed to grieve. When Angel dies, it is the moment that is supposed to trigger everybody else getting their life back together. Because Angel dies, you know. Angel is the one who directs Mimi back from the dead. Angel is the one who reminds Roger how to write his song, and to think of Mimi again. Angel is the one who reminds Mark to not sell out, and to make his own little documentary film and all of these kinds of things. And Angel's name is evoked throughout as this kind of figure that people get to wager, or sort of utilize, as this symbol of what could be, and what might have been.

But Angel doesn't actually get to experience any of these kinds of things. Angel is such a symbol that Jonathan Larson, I feel, is not able to even control how we view Angel. Which is why we have so much pronoun trouble with Angel, even to this day, because Jonathan Larson wasn't thinking.

And, you know, I try to give a good bit of space to this, because I recognize that this was the '90s, and perhaps people weren't as -- some people weren't talking about the questions of pronouns with this degree of nuance. But a lot of people were. And if you're writing this kind of musical, I think you need to reckon with those. I can't imagine a musical in which somebody's pronouns shift to this degree throughout the entirety of the musical, and we're sort of told to just accept that.

Angel becomes unwieldy in that sort of way because Jonathan Larson hadn't experienced, hadn't really, I think, met somebody like Angel to know what to actually do with Angel as a writer.

I feel something similarly with Belize, where I think that the actors -- and particularly with Belize -- the actors that I've seen portray Belize have given such depth and nuance to a character that isn't written, quite frankly, to have that kind of depth and nuance. We don't get to learn enough about Belize. We don't get to see Belize's motivation. Belize sort of exists to remind us that everybody is deserving of kindness in a certain kind of way, even these figures that particularly don't deserve it. Somebody like Roy Cohn, who -- Tony Kushner throughout, even in his note in the playbill, tells us he's concerned with Roy Cohn. But where is the concern for Belize? Why is he not concerned with our reckoning with Belize? Why is he not concerned with how Belize ultimately gets to have a sense of humanity, or a sense of depth?

None of that really exists in that kind of way, I think, throughout these plays. And so these queer figures in both of these plays ultimately serve to just sort of reapply the centrality of white maleness throughout. They ultimately serve almost as a counterpoint in a lot of ways to white maleness as normal, even with the marginalization of seropositivity, the marginalization of homosexuality. None of that is as bad as the queer Latinx figure who is seropositive, or this queer black man, about whom we know nothing. We have this kind of off-stage boyfriend that we've heard of, but we don't know anything about, kind of pining for one of the main characters who seems not interested in him anymore. They don't get the nuance that we require of other characters, because their point is just to serve as a counterpoint.

KF: I had never considered just how much, on the Roy Cohn side, how much Tony Kushner is concerned with him and, kind of, his salvation, in a weird way.

DFM: Right. Right.

KF: And we've talked about the actual person Roy Cohn was, not just a gay man. Think about the production of homophobia that Roy Cohn kind of put out in the world through his own life and career; but he was also a mentor to our now-president, Donald Trump. He also worked for Joseph McCarthy at the suggestion of J. Edgar Hoover.

DFM: Yeah, yeah.

KF: And when we talk about the kind of scale of racial violence that Hoover's FBI put particularly black radicals under is astounding. And that isn't really dealt with in the script, either.

DFM: Right. Yeah. And it's so strange to me. I mean, we've seen on the AIDS quilt that Roy Cohn has a square. And for Tony Kushner, you know, people -- when we see Roy Cohn on stage, certainly he's not … he remains the villain. But it's so much sympathy for the devil that you're struck, I think, especially in this 21st-century context, and especially viewing Angels in America in the Trump era, you can't help but notice the way he is being so concerned with Roy Cohn as having a sense of redemption or a strange sense of community, for a group that he did not want community with.

KF: So, now I want to talk a little bit about the future, the afterlife of these plays. You say in the article that, in a way, Angels in America and Rent kind of foretell what we see -- really just a few years after their success on Broadway -- with the sort of mainstreaming of white queer characters, and in television, an even bigger arena, with Will & Grace and Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. Can you talk about how you see this transition, and the connection between the two?

DFM: I think that Angels in America and Rent did something, that there is a positive aspect, in that they acquainted Middle America with the reality of the fact that AIDS existed and continues to exist. But it sort of announced it for a lot of people who were otherwise able to sort of ignore it because it wasn't being presented in pop culture in that kind of way.

But it also created a realm in which queerness became kitschy or sort of an accoutrement. Will & Grace: It's almost as if Will's sexuality becomes a plot contrivance to just explain why Will and Grace are never going to be the endgame of that show.

You know, in a lot of these mainstream productions we see heterosexuality -- and hetero sex, for that matter -- in prominent display. But we are still squeamish, it seems, about revealing homosexuality -- and, certainly, any homosexual act. Grace is allowed to be much more flimsy and flippant than Will is, for example.

Jack is certainly flimsy and flippant about sex, as well, but that is done strictly for comic relief. We don't really see Jack searching for a partner in that kind of a way, because he becomes that sort of comic figure -- which ultimately does harm. It forwards this kind of idea of the gay best friend, you know, the sassy gay men and things like that, that we continue to see compulsively throughout the 21st century.

I think that there are some television shows that are doing a really nice job of making it so that these characters are allowed to have private lives and engage in certain kinds of ways. But the default is always just the idea that you don't have to really know anything about what a queer experience is, what queer life looks like, to write a queer figure. And that, to me, is the problem.

KF: Right. And on the other side, thinking about Still/Here and Black Is … Black Ain't, what do you see as the trajectory, you know, past those films? What is the sort of through-line, in terms of how we see queers of color or black queer life in the decade or so after? Or even contemporarily?

DFM: I think because Black Is … Black Ain't and Still/Here, although these were critical moments in film, and certainly in documentaries, and certainly in black queerness, they matter so much; but because they never received the same kind of traction, I think it still becomes sort of a niche for a lot of people.

I think that Black Is … Black Ain't and Still/Here require us, if we've seen them, that we have to continue to reckon with them. The difficulty, of course, becomes that Rent and Angels in America became so, almost, overwhelming, that they became so popular, that they became so many people's first experience. People were watching Rent and feeling like that made them an activist, that they had done something, in terms of AIDS activism or LGBTQ rights, because they loved Angel -- and things like that.

Whereas Black Is … Black Ain't and Still/Here require you to do more than just watch. There is a call that those documentaries are issuing to us to critically think about the intersections that are being portrayed, and how.

Well, and not only how those intersections exist, but how either culpable we are for reinforcing the sort of marginalization that intersectionality deals with, or how we, as marginalized figures, can also agitate against that, or attempt to refuse those parameters and refuse the marginalization that they suggest for us. That's why I'm always so drawn to Marlon Riggs, in particular, is that he just refuses to be anything other than beautiful, to be anything other than fabulous and self-assured, in a certain kind of way. He refuses those labels, and that means something.

Where we don't -- we can't imagine -- you know, Belize almost refuses those labels, but the labels become so overwhelming. And, you know, Tony Kushner is writing this character. Belize can't do much outside of the label he's been given.

Marlon Riggs seems to imagine a world in which those labels could even just be a starting point for the rest of his action and the rest of his engagements.

KF: I would be curious to hear, in closing, what is it that you see now as the next phase of thinking about queers of color and HIV in terms of cultural production?

DFM: First of all, when we're talking about AIDS and queers of color in the 21st century, there needs to be a real push to acknowledge that AIDS is still here, that AIDS still exists in mainstream popular culture -- and not just in a way that kind of says, like, "Oh, you know, it happens." There still to me frequently seems to be this sense of, "You brought it on yourself because you like sex so much," or something where people have this idea of sex and sexuality as this inherently bad thing. And because it's a bad thing, you know, this is sort of the natural end result.

I'm hoping that the 21st century will push past that idea. And I think that pushing past that idea opens us up into a realm of actually, really thinking about what possibilities there are for talking about AIDS and HIV positivity in the 21st century. I think that there's often this sense that this is something that, you know, it's manageable now, and so it's not a real concern.

There are still class issues, there are racial issues, there are issues of sexuality all wrapped up in that. And until we can reckon with the fact that even seropositivity is not treated on an even playing field, depending on who the person is, we are going to struggle in these sorts of conversations.

Similarly, thinking about the nuance of queer identity and queers of color in a way that allows us to have a presumption that homosexuality is just a mirror image of heterosexuality, that we have to think about all of the wide variety of ways in which people perform their queer identities. There has to be space for talking about the actual reality of people's sexual identities. It's complicated. It is nuanced. It is confusing. In some cases, there are all of these different ways, all of which are valid, and that realm of possibility has to be afforded, not just for white characters -- which, I think, we're starting to see that perhaps a little bit more -- but also, certainly, for figures of color.

But there have always been queer people in communities of color. I resist the argument that people of color are any more homophobic than the society in which they've been indoctrinated and raised. And so there is a need to allow black queers, Latinx queers, all of these queers of color, that fluidity that queer identity contains. Everyone has a right to see themselves portrayed in literature and in film. And so that's what I'm hoping the 21st century will lead to.

I'm not optimistic at this point, but I am hopeful that something like that is where we might be leading -- although the Oscars recently has shown me that many people are still yearning for the same kinds of portrayals of queer identity that we've had, you know, since the '80s and '90s, for sure -- and before that, even.