Okay. I was taking my time to craft a beautifully-thought-out, well-written entry about the relevance of Angels in America in today’s society in response to Peter Marks’ comment in his article that we would be faced with “reinvigorating a scalding political drama in a city in which the politics have changed.” I had written a great lead-in quoting Trey’s article in the City Paper in which he said, “if this capital city has ever needed a reminder of what humanity means in the great sweep of the history we make here—it’s now.” It was going to be fully-formed paragraphs, but then I switched over to another screen to update our Twitter feed and I somehow deleted the post. Sigh. So we’re going to go with more of a bullet-point comparison approach. Cool? Cool.
When Angels premiered in New York in 1993:
- we were a few months into the new, democratic administration of Bill Clinton
- the US was slowly recovering from the economic recession we had fallen into during the presidency of George H. W. Bush
- few advances had been made in the study of AIDS and a diagnosis was still a death sentence
Compare to today:
- Angels will open close to the end of Barack Obama’s first year in office
- the economy is only just beginning to recover from a depression that has lasted a year, begun under the presidency of George W. Bush
- advances have been made that might lead to the discovery of a vaccine for AIDS, but
- the rate of infection continues to rise, particularly here in the nation’s capital
The most shocking shift, however, to me, and the biggest reason we need the reminder provided by this play, is the perception of the disease as one that can be controlled. According to a release from the Kaiser Family Foundation,
“Less than a year after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recalculated the size of the HIV/AIDS epidemic and announced that there were 40 percent more new HIV infections each year than previously believed, a new survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation finds that Americans’ sense of urgency about HIV/AIDS as a national health problem has fallen dramatically and their concern about HIV as a personal risk has also declined, even among some groups at higher risk.”
In 2007, the national average of infections per 100,000 people is 12.5. In the District, the rate is 148.1. In fact, our rate of infection is so high, we’re actually “on par with Uganda and parts of Kenya.” The general perception of the disease, that it is now only chronic and not fatal, means that prevention is no longer a main concern. However, while there are many courses of treatment for the disease available, there is no guarantee that any of them will work for any given patient.
In the ’80s an AIDS diagnosis was a death sentence. No one lived. Eminent death was a certainty. Today, it’s the one question that doctors can’t answer for new patients. They might respond to treatements and live for decades, or they might be dead within months.
Setting aside all of the other large themes the plays deal with – progress as individuals and political entities, migration, conversion, identity, sexuality – for the issue of AIDS alone, this play remains intensely topical. Yes, a study from Thailand recently made headlines declaring that their landmark vaccine trial protected one third of the study members – a significant advancement over any previous vaccine trials. However, as the NY Times points out, this study may not be as significant as it initially seems. Over the past 30 years, AIDS has killed over 25 million people. It shows almost no sign of being curbed. While the public may be feeling more confidant about their chances of avoiding contracting this illness or living with it as a chronic condition, this is clearly not the case. And here in the District, we need this reminder more than ever.