How to Make a Black Man Disappear From Broadway

Here's what Ben Brantley did -- or didn't do -- in his review of "Angels in America" on Broadway.

Andrew Garfield, Nathan Stewart-Jarrett in the London production of "Angels in America." Photo Credit: Helen Maybanks

On the opening night of the current revival of Angels in America on Broadway, I refreshed my phone again and again, waiting for Ben Brantley’s verdict on the play in The New York Times. Angels had already conquered England — and impressed Brantley. To be honest, I didn’t really care whether he was going to give it a rave or a pan. I wanted to see if he would make someone disappear.

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And Brantley did it. He managed to write an entire review of Angels in America without once mentioning the name of one of the central characters: Belize, a.k.a. Norman Arriaga. Belize is the hospital nurse who is Prior Walter’s friend and ex-lover, and Roy Cohn’s nurse. Belize is a smart, fierce man who, in Tony Kushner’s world, actually helps the evil Cohn avoid “regular people” health care by getting him access to AZT, a potentially life-saving drug that was at the time more valuable than gold (or the wealth of Cohn’s now infamous protégé, Donald Trump).

To be fair, Brantley did praise the actor, Nathan Stewart-Jarrett, for playing a character Brantley described as “a caustic gay nurse.” To reiterate, that would be Belize, given name Norman Arriaga, the only Black character in the play. (The character of Mr. Lies, who exists only in the mind of another character, Harper Pitt, is performed by the actor playing Belize, but isn’t defined as a person of color.)

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This was not the first time Brantley managed to make Belize disappear, which was why I was riveted to my phone on the night of the Broadway premiere. When Brantley reviewed the London production of Angels, he did a roundup of actors he liked, including Stewart-Jarrett, who has now played Belize masterfully in London as well as NYC. But Belize, the character’s name, simply went unmentioned there as well.

Why Kushner chose to position Belize as a life-giver and a death-mourner to the openly racist and closeted Cohn mystifies me, and I find it profoundly problematic. Nonetheless, it is clearly a huge piece of this theatrical event. I am not a gay man, and I know I need to step back and listen to Kushner and others for the answers to these questions. But as a white person, I feel perfectly confident speculating about why Brantley makes Belize’s Black body vanish not once, but twice, in his writing on Angels. It’s my suspicion that the usual culprit — the racism of ignorance, of neglect — was behind this.

Perhaps poetically, this culprit is also built into the play itself.

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In a brilliant essay published by Buzzfeed, essayist and HIV/AIDS scholar Steven Thrasher asks “Why is Angels In America still the most prominent story being told about AIDS?” Why is there only one Black character in a play widely heralded as the AIDS story of America, when AIDS has affected the Black community more than any other in America?

However much Angels provided Thrasher with a lifeline as a 16-year-old drawn to things “that were kinda gay though not too gay,” in his essay he now sees the play as one of many works of art that isolate a single Black character who relates only to white people. Belize’s lover does exist, we’re told, just somewhere offstage and “uptown.” As Thrasher sees it, “Isolated black characters tell audiences black people can’t find love from each other, but only from white people.”

Brantley couldn’t even muster that much of a narrative in his reviews. We live in a world where a Black boy can ring a doorbell to ask for directions only to end up running for his life, where two Black businessmen can be arrested for sitting in a Starbucks. The white gaze toggles between terror and violence against Black bodies in real life, and invisibility in white art and criticism.

As this production of Angels has received multiple Tony nominations and an extension of its Broadway run, this piece of the canon clearly isn’t going anywhere. It’s time for us to ask, however, whether it should.