What do the similarities of the characters in Angels in America and Joe Turner's Come and Gone suggest about the nature of contemporary theatre and the themes and ideas that are important to the theatrical audience in America?
Simply put, I think that both works stress that theatre is one of the last artistic venues where complex notions of individual and social identity can be articulated in nuanced and intricate manners. Both works address modern identity with very detailed and unique approaches. The use of the theatre medium is important because it is not bound by camera cuts, focus group testing, and the ability to secure financing with profit motives attached. Both works serve as testament to the idea that if one seeks thought and reflective displays of art, it is the theatre that one seeks as sanctuary.
In Wilson's work, the wide display of character who are in search of their identity is what defines the vision rendered on stage. Wilson does not give any easy outs or reductive approaches in such a depiction. Rather, he features individuals who are of the past (Bynum), part of the future (Zonia and Reuben), as well as characters who are in the present, most everyone else. The key component as they remain in the boarding house is that they all struggle for identity. Given the past condition of slavery and an uncertain future, Wilson's work depicts identity as a pursuit that takes them in different areas and in different arenas. Theatre becomes the domain in which this complex tapestry of individual and social voyage becomes evident. Wilson allows the stage medium to display that there are no easy answers, what Kushner would later say, "no angels in America, to provide instant guidance. The stage embraces this complexity, and due to it, Wilson can present an image where the only clarity is the need for individuals to act in what they believe in at that moment in time.
Kushner's ideas of identity are much the same. He displays the search for individual identity amidst the drive for consensus in America of the 1980s, the condition of being homosexual in such a time period, and how the fear of AIDS impacts the construction of self. The theatre allows this construction to take place, filled with trials of God, emotional abandonment, and angels who like to repeat the personal pronoun. In this venue, Kushner depicts characters who are immersed in the same struggle that Wilson depicts in his characters. There is a search for identity and an uncertainty as to what this contains. From varied backgrounds like Joe and Harper to Prior and Louis to Roy and Belize, Kushner uses the stage as a way to highlight their struggles to find identity in a modern setting where the path is far from clear. While a cable televised version of the drama was made, it is in the complexity of the theatre where this struggle for identity is displayed in its most stark terms.
For both Kushner and Wilson, the theatre is where the struggle for identity takes place. It provides a format where complexity can be embraced and reflection can take place. These values have defined the theatre as fundamentally different than other mediums like television or cinema because of the embrace of complexity and divergence of thought.