Tony Kushner’s latest play, Caroline, or Change, left me contemplating its curious title, which suggests an indecisive playwright. Why not just Caroline, or simply Change? Are two titles better than one?
In this case, absolutely. Caroline, or Change, a collaboration with composer Jeanine Tesori and director George C. Wolfe at New York’s Public Theater, is a work in which so much hinges on that little “or” in the title. Built around parallels and contrasts, duos and dualisms, the play brilliantly constructs a series of either/ors and then defies our efforts to choose between them. Call it the theater of indecision: drama that counters everything with its opposite. Or call it the right way to tackle a subject with a history too knotty for the sort of pat treatment it might, in other hands, receive: the longtime love-hate affair between blacks and Jews.
It’s best to start with plot. Kushner would have it no other way: “Theater is as much a part of trash culture as it is high art,” he once said. “It has to have the jokes and it has to have the feathers and the mirrors and the smoke.” The tenor of a metaphor is only as good as its vehicle. Caroline, or Change erects symbolic castles in the air but never loses sight of the literal; it is first and foremost an entertaining musical treat and–thankfully–a good story.
This story, largely biographical, unfolds in the suburbs of Lake Charles, Louisiana, just as 1963 is to become 1964. Critical years become musical leitmotifs: Kennedy’s assassination is momentarily mourned in an early scene, and “civil rights” is a quasi-magical mantra, its promise and potency not yet realized. Events occur in one of two worlds, which contrast and crisscross: master or servant; black or, well, not black (though not, we learn, quite white, either). Caroline Thibodeaux (Tonya Pinkins) is the Gellmans’ African-American maid–of a generation for whom there’s no “African-American,” only “Negro.” She has four children (including a son in Vietnam). Her workload is heavy and her wage light: “$30 ain’t enough,” Caroline sighs in an early number. Noah Gellman (Harrison Chad), on the other hand, is a 9-year-old Jewish boy–among Southerners for whom there’s no “Jewish,” only “Christian.” He has four parents (including a mother who has passed away, a stepmother who’s just joined the family and Caroline, an ur-mom). His workload is light and his allowance heavy: Noah’s pocket change, enough to keep his pants jingling, affords him the habit of delivering coin-filled clothes to the laundry–where Caroline decoins them.
Caroline, or Change thus lives either in the world of Caroline, where money is scarce–or in the world of change, where it is not. Caroline churns out her labor in the bowels of the house, but even in her basement domain she is not master: Towering over her, literally and metaphorically, are the washing machine, the radio and the electric dryer–comically personified by an Aretha-esque soprano, a Supremes-style trio and a smooth baritone à la James Brown. She may lack change, but Caroline gets 2 cents from these outspoken appliances whether she likes it or not. Mostly she doesn’t like it, but Caroline, ever scowling, doesn’t like much: not her friend and fellow maid, Dotty, flitting about in bobby socks and attending college; not her daughter, Emmie, who declares herself “black” and waxes radical (“I ain’t got no tears to shed for no dead white guy,” Emmie sings of JFK). Most of all, Caroline doesn’t like “making bubkes,” as Mrs. Gellman–sympathetic to the “Negro maid”–puts it.