No tidy endings♦
Tony Kushner’s Caroline, or Change may well be an even finer achievement than his Angels in America. Angels (1990), his fantasia on the American gay experience, dazzled with its panoramic sweep; Caroline (2003), his treatment of the Civil Right revolution, impresses with its intimacy and understatement, its balanced presentation of differing sides in a social revolution, and its depiction of everyday life in a single small household.
There’s plenty going on in this one small house in the autumn of 1963. Almost too much. The Civil Rights movement affects both the family of eight-year-old Noah (Kushner’s alter ego) and that of their black domestic servant Caroline; the Vietnam war impacts Caroline, whose oldest son is in the army over there; Noah’s father’s new marriage is creating problems; family members with clashing social views come to visit from New York, and then JFK is assassinated.
But listen carefully for some unexpected twists. Shortly after Kennedy’s death, Caroline’s daughter complains that she ain’t gonna be sad about no white man. And although Noah worships Caroline as a mother-substitute, late in the play Caroline informs the child, "We never were friends." The relationships between these blacks and whites do not resolve in a tidy happy ending.
The overlooked composer
Although Kushner is the better known of Caroline’s co-creators, equal attention must be paid to composer Jeanine Tesori. As she showed the world (and Arden audiences) in Violet, Tesori is an expert in the idioms of the American South. In that earlier work she wrote music that was specific to Nashville, to Memphis, to Arkansas and to Oklahoma as her heroine traveled through those states by bus. For this Louisiana-based play, Tesori’s music also matches the place and time. She has composed songs like girl-group hits of the early ’60s, gospel and soul music for the black family and the klezmer tradition of the Jewish family that migrated from Europe to New York to Lake Charles, near New Orleans. Tesori herself is neither black nor Jewish nor Southern, which increases my admiration for her accomplishment even more.
Her individual numbers are cloaked in a chamber-music fabric that transcends the specific period. Conductor Eric Ebbenga reinforced them by enticing lustrous sounds from the orchestra.
A practical woman with fanciful appliances?
I do question Kushner’s personification of a washing machine, a dryer, a radio, a bus and the moon. Fanciful embellishments like these seemed right for Angels in America and might be suitable here if they dramatized Noah’s childish imaginings. But the appliances are not part of Noah’s world. Instead, they are objects of Caroline’s environment— and this maid is a practical woman, resistant to all the change she sees around her, who doesn’t seem ripe for imagining such companions.
At least these extra (and extra-terrestrial) characters provide Tesori the chance to add idiosyncratic songs, especially from the radio gal trio. But not all of them were necessary.
I must quarrel with the review of my friend and BSR colleague Lewis Whittington on one point: What he calls the "PC-rant" of Noah’s grandfather is actually what many of us heard from old-time leftists in our own families, and our parents tried to shush them because their agitated comments were politically incorrect.
Improving on the New York production
Terrence J. Nolen’s direction is even more effective than was George Wolfe’s when I saw the premiere at New York’s Public Theatre in 2003 (a year before Caroline opened on Broaday). He nicely separates the spaces of the servant, the family and the child. Nolen deftly balances the realistic with the fanciful and maintains a steamy, claustrophobic atmosphere.
Joilet F. Harris is superb in the title role. Elyse McKay Taylor is strong as her eldest daughter Emmie, as is Kelly J. Rucker as her outspoken friend Dotty. Jay Pierce shows off a gorgeous voice as the dryer and the bus, while poor Adam Heller must portray an introverted, diffident guy with few vocal opportunities. Sherri L. Edelen is excellent in the tough role of Noah’s stepmother; her singing and acting are nuanced and sympathetic. A real treasure is Griffin Beck as Noah. It’s not easy to find a child small enough to play an eight-year-old who can be so appealing, act so convincingly and sing unerringly on pitch.
To read a respone, click here.
To read another review by Lewis Whittington, click here.
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