The Closest of Strangers

The Closest of Strangers

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?


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.

Rose Stopnick Gellman’s domain is the world above the basement: a living room in which the living isn’t easy. It offers a mélange of white-bread, 1950s-style melodrama–emotional scars lurk beneath jovial Leave It to Beaver routines–and Jewish dysfunction of the Philip Roth variety: Young boy, passive father, stepmother whose all-purpose anodyne is another pot of stuffed cabbage. Mrs. Gellman’s recent marriage has led her down South, exiling her from the Upper West Side and leaving her in a state of New York withdrawal. Kushner paints her a bit too over-the-top–the Jewish mother stereotype can take on a life of its own–but her husband is understated: Still mourning his first wife, he’s passive and absent, in a state of withdrawal from life itself. And little Noah–inhabiting a bedroom suspended over the living room–is himself emotionally suspended between a new mother and an old one. So he turns to Caroline, of whom he gleefully sings: “Caroline!/the President of the United States/Caroline, who’s always mad!/Caroline, who runs everything!/Caroline, who’s stronger than my dad!”

In Brechtian fashion, Caroline and Noah’s bond is soiled by that which soils any emotional bond: cold cash. Instructing Caroline to keep the pocket change she finds in Noah’s laundry, Mrs. Gellman, hoping to teach Noah a lesson, turns his emotional exchange with Caroline into a fiscal one. The play becomes an either/or dilemma worthy of The New York Times Magazine‘s “Ethicist” column: Has Caroline, finding Noah’s $20 Hanukkah gelt in her laundry load, rights to it or not? Bickering, Noah and Caroline end up hurling racial slurs at each other.

Truth rears its head–and nothing propels it like change. I mean this in the literal sense–what’s more literal than economics?–but also in the metaphorical one. “Noah has a problem with change,” Mrs. Gellman sings, and we know she’s talking more than nickels and dimes. As Kushner buries us in “change” metaphors–heavy-handedly, yes, but with so much panache we forgive him–change turns to change. In this year of great political and cultural upheaval, Caroline hates change but her children lust after it. Noah’s coins rest in a bleach cup, reminding us of what Jews, newly nestled in the suburbs, had discovered: Money is the ultimate whitening agent in America. Literal and figurative thus become happy bedfellows, and the play’s title earns a question mark: What will prevail, Caroline–who “can’t afford change,” she sings–or her nemesis, change itself?

With the hindsight of history, we can answer such a question. Or can we? From A Bright Room Called Day, his early play about the final months of the Weimar Republic, to Angels in America, his opus about the dying millennium, Kushner has been fascinated by the cusp of change, the proverbial rumble before the storm. Like those earlier plays, Caroline, or Change dramatizes a fork in the road of history. It’s a modern-day morality play in which clashing ideologies are personified by clashing characters. Kushner resolves one such clash for us: Caroline’s children, notably her change-happy daughter, Emmie, are the last ones on stage–suggesting that the future belongs to change, not to Caroline.

But other tensions linger. Northern versus Southern attitudes toward race are dramatized by two sets of in-laws. For Mrs. Gellman’s father–an old-school New York socialist who’s “waiting for revolution” because “nonviolence will get you burned”–blacks are characters in a fantasy of radical change; a powerful idea, unscathed by contact with actual black people. Stuart Gellman’s Southern parents, by contrast, view black people through the “benevolent” but racist lens of paternalism, yet their views are anything but abstract, grounded as they are in their relationships with “the help.” Both attitudes are flawed, and even today, we’d be hard pressed to deem one more palatable than the other. Instead of making one philosophy triumph, Kushner leaves us grappling with the blunders of both, denying us the easy comforts of complacency.

Take, for instance, the relationship between Noah and his father. Does the future of American Jewishness lie with the latter, who “doesn’t believe in God and all that corny stuff,” or with the former, who’s plainly yet naïvely in search of a higher being? What happens when faith becomes, as it did for snugly American Jews of the 1950s and ’60s, a “neutered Judaism,” to quote Tikkun editor Michael Lerner, that’s “watered down to fit America”? Caroline, or Change has, at its core, profound reservations about the shape of contemporary American Judaism–especially its vexed relationship to African-American culture. This relationship–what the play is patently about–has been neatly captured by Cornel West’s observation that “Jews and blacks have been linked in a kind of symbiotic relation with each other.” Such “symbiosis” has worn various historical guises: cultural exchange or exploitation (Al Jolson sporting blackface, or Def Jam founder Rick Rubin peddling rap group Public Enemy), political advocacy (Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner in Mississippi) and personal affiliation. But in most cases the black-Jew bond has been reduced to facile, feel-good claims about vague yet innate alliances between similar groups: black-Jew buddy fantasies à la Driving Miss Daisy or I’m Not Rappaport. Not so in Kushner’s hands. By way of a little Jewish boy and his black maid–an inherently charged scenario–Caroline, or Change lays bare the deeper, less picture-perfect dynamics of that “special” bond.

These dynamics were addressed by an eloquent exchange that occurred, as it happens, in the same year in which Caroline, or Change is set. Looking askance (and perhaps a tad jealously) on Irving Howe’s high praise for Richard Wright, served up in Howe’s 1963 Dissent essay “Black Boys and Native Sons,” Ralph Ellison leveled a blunt blow: “The real guilt of such Jewish intellectuals,” he wrote in response, “lies in their facile, perhaps unconscious, but certainly unrealistic identification with what is called the ‘power structure.’ Negroes call that ‘passing for white.'”

Jews passing for white? It’s an odd claim, but not an implausible one in certain contexts–1920s America, for instance, when xenophobia and nativism made racial lines sharper than ever, and Jews could not be certain where they stood with respect to the color line. In other contexts–like 1950s America, when Jews were suburb-bound, or contemporary America, now that they’re suburb-settled–the claim is harder to sustain. True, a longtime legacy of anti-Semitism has promoted Jewish identification with African-American causes and cultures (and, occasionally, with African-Americans themselves). Such is the identification embraced by little Noah Gellman, a Jew among Christian Southerners. The best number in the play is one in which the boy imagines himself “Noah Thibodeaux,” one of Caroline’s children: “Now I know what they talk about/at the Thibodeaux house, at suppertime,” he sings, visualizing his pocket change among Caroline’s kin. “Now they count their quarters and/they talk about me!” Noah longs for Caroline, but more than that, he longs for a world he imagines as the better opposite of his own: bleak but blithe, poor but playful. His are the “noble savage” fantasies of the privileged. Watching the Jewish boy shoop-shoop and doo-wop beside three black children evokes Jolson or Sophie Tucker singing of Mammy on the Broadway stage, offering an impressive version of someone else’s song. It’s the musical incarnation of a black-Jew partnership based on homage, envy, collaboration and theft–a partnership that indeed has one foot in truth.

But this partnership also has one foot in fantasy. Even as Ellison takes Howe to task for passing for white, implicitly asserting a parallel between black and Jew, he accuses him in the same exchange of having so little actual affiliation with blacks that “when he looks at a Negro he sees not a human being but an abstract embodiment of living hell.” There’s theory, in which the two groups are and ought to be aligned, and then there’s the reality of history, which has dealt blacks and Jews very different cards (including, for instance, different physical features). Cultures can’t be collapsed so easily. We chuckle at “Noah Thibodeaux” because his identification with Caroline is understandable, yet also futile and immature. The notion that blacks and Jews are merrily of a piece is given some credence by Kushner–but deeply undermined by the fact that it’s voiced by a naïve, narcissistic child.

Noah’s buddy fantasy takes its final blow after his fight with Caroline. The boy sweetly asks if they can be friends again. “Weren’t never friends,” she sings in reply. “Someday we’ll talk again,/but they’s things we’ll never say/That sorrow deep inside you,/It’s inside me, too,/And it never go away./ You be OK.”

Will Caroline be OK? We never find out. Neither do we find out how Noah’s Jewish children grew up, racially speaking; we only surmise that their America has a prominent place for hip-hop culture–which Jews, from the Beastie Boys to Rick Rubin, had a hand in. Like another fine exploration of the black-Jewish bond, The Color of Water, James McBride’s 1996 memoir about his Jewish mother, who all but passed for black after marrying a black man, Caroline, or Change makes the wise move of asking more than it answers. Both stories take on race relations by examining the relations between a mother and her sometime son. And both refuse to sell this relationship short by reducing it to a buddy tale about two “othered” individuals. The play scrutinizes this fantasy, laying bare its complex and contradictory parameters.

Only through music does the play find a sense of resolution. An amalgam of soul, Motown, klezmer and Broadway numbers–in other words, of Jewish and black musical forms–Caroline, or Change asserts musically what it makes a point of denying thematically: Blacks and Jews can achieve seamless fusion. There is no Caroline-Noah embrace to say that hey, we can all just get along–but there is singing and dancing.

Its music is a generic collage, and so, ultimately, is the whole of Caroline, or Change. On the one hand it evokes race-related films of its period, which wore their lessons on their sleeves: Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, or Douglas Sirk’s Imitation of Life. Such films are more didactic than a first-grade teacher–and Kushner can be, too. For good reason: Like all his work, Caroline, or Change is designed to make us think and, ultimately, act.

Didacticism, though, relies on moral absolutes: Lessons should be firm and true enough to be taught. But like most great writers, Kushner understands that life is contradictory, and that absolutes are difficult to come by. His is the paradox of the activist-artist: An “activist” relies on moral imperatives, but an “artist” sees many sides in issues and many faces in humanity. And so Kushner has it both ways, writing a play that is, at its core, a grand either/ or: didactic protest piece–or morally ambiguous art? Caroline, or Change succeeds by having its cake and eating it, too–by having the guise of the former and the soul of the latter and being, in the end, both.

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