Louis and Belize sit in a coffee shop. Louis is talking very quickly about the state of liberalism in America. As he speaks, the other half of the stage lights up, revealing Prior in the hospital, being treated by Emily.
This is one of Kushner’s cleverest juxtapositions: on one half of the stage, an abstract, babbling conversation about liberalism; on the other, a living, breathing human being.
Louis talks about the decay of property rights—a signifier of the “worst kind of liberalism.” Nowadays, he claims, liberals focus too much on abstract ideals like freedom and inequality. The AIDs crisis proves that tolerance is worthless—it’s not enough to “tolerate” gays, because one can both tolerate and hate gay people.
Louis is a smart guy, but he doesn’t really know what he’s trying to say. There’d been so much debate about the future of liberalism during the 70s and 80s (after the crushing electoral defeats of Eugene McCarthy, Jimmy Carter, and George McGovern, Democrats were eager to disavow the label altogether). Here, it’s as if Louis’s loose, unmotivated theories are “shut down” by the AIDS crisis itself. This isn’t the time for theories—it’s time for action.
Louis goes on talking, while Belize looks impatient. Louis claims that the U.S. is unique in the world, in that its view of race is far less significant than its counterparts in Europe. Belize asks Louis if he believes that America has no race problem. Race is important in the U.S., Louis admits, but it’s important in a political sense, not a cultural or religious sense—this is the case because “there are no angels in America.” Belize replies that Louis has said “7 or 8 things that I find offensive.” Louis admits that he might be a racist. He suggests that Belize might hate him because he’s Jewish. Belize denies this, and accuses Louis of hating black people. Louis shoots back that black people hate Jews. On the other side of the stage, Emily moves around Prior, treating his wounds.
Louis has a point, but it’s not quite the point he thinks he’s making. Certainly, America has a special history of racial and class politics—the American emphasis on freedom and immigration allowed many different racial groups to prosper. But it’s also incredibly naïve for Louis to argue that America has no race problem—a view that comes from his own privileged position as a white man (despite the fact that Louis is oppressed for his homosexuality, he still enjoys other privileges of whiteness that Belize doesn’t have access to). Louis immediately gets defensive when he’s called out for being narrow-minded, and so he lashes out at Belize as a potential anti-Semite. This scene also gives us the play’s title, which is here presented as a cynical, limited view of the U.S.
Louis suggests that Belize hates him because he’s abandoned Prior. Louis claims that he still loves Prior—he’s just “ambivalent.” Belize ignores this and tells Louis about a book he read long ago, In Love with a Life Mysterious. The book is about a white Southern belle named Margaret who falls in love with a black slave named Thaddeus. At some point in the book, after Margaret’s plantation has been burned to the ground, Margaret tells Thaddeus, “Real love isn’t ever ambivalent.”
Like Prior Martin, Belize uses fiction and performance to get at a serious point. As maudlin and clichéd as Belize’s book sounds, it also idealizes a form of love that Louis aspires to feel. It’s easy to say that love shouldn’t ever be ambivalent, but it’s a thousand times harder to live one’s life according to such a principle.
In the hospital, Emily asks Prior how he’s feeling. Prior tells her that he’s feeling better, less nauseous, and more energetic. He also mentions that his friend Burt died of tuberculosis. Prior didn’t go to the funeral because the funeral was open casket—Prior is frightened of catching a disease. Back in the cafe, Louis asks Belize how Prior’s doing, and Belize tells him that Prior is doing horribly.
AIDS essentially destroys a person’s immune system, so Prior has to be especially wary of catching anything contagious (even something like a cold, which a healthy person would easily shake off, could be devastating for someone with AIDS).
Prior tells Emily that he fears that something is “plummeting” to earth to hit him. Emily assures him that there’s nothing to worry about. Then, she begins talking in Hebrew. Prior is confused. He asks Emily why she’s speaking in Hebrew, but Emily laughs and says that she doesn’t know any Hebrew. She tells Prior that he’s one of the lucky ones—he’ll probably live for years, even though he has no immune system. As Emily talks, Prior hallucinates the appearance of an enormous, flaming book bearing the Hebrew “aleph” symbol. Emily can’t see it. Confused, Prior rushes out of the hospital room.
Emily suggests that Prior is going to live for years (a strong foreshadowing of what will happen in Part Two), and Prior’s hallucinations also become more vivid as the first part of the play reaches an end. The presence of Hebrew letters in this scene—and the aleph in particular, which is the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet and a symbol of beginnings, newness, and a single all-encompassing sign—signals the scope of Prior’s vision. This will be a prophecy of Biblical proportions.
Louis tells Belize that he misses Prior horribly, but he’s frightened of getting sick. Louis tells Belize to tell Prior that he loves him. Belize replies, “I don’t know what love is.” Together, Louis and Belize look at the stormy skies. Louis claims that the sky is purple, but Belize corrects him—it’s mauve. As Belize walks away, it begins to snow.
Belize idealizes a certain form of unambiguous love, but he’s also too smart and practical to say that he really understands love as a concept—Belize is focused more on individuals than principles. Louis, by contrast, tries to understand everything in larger generalizations, and makes offensive or factually incorrect statements as a result. Belize’s comment about mauve can be interpreted as a symbolic critique of Louis for his ignorance of the larger gay community: purple is a symbolically gay color, and so for Louis to be unable to distinguish different shades of purple suggests his un-nuanced understanding of the gay community.