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Ramona Keller, Tracy Nicole Chapman,
Marva Hicks, and Tonya Pinkins
in Caroline, or Change
(Photo © Michal Daniel)
The title pun on which Tony Kushner builds Caroline, or Change is inspired -- another cogent example of the visionary dramatist's genius. It's such a find that Kushner himself may still be marveling at its profound simplicity.

The central action involves Noah Gellman (Harrison Chad), who's required by his stepmother Rose (Veanne Cox) to donate the coins he leaves in his soiled clothes to the family's laconic cleaning lady, Caroline Thibodeaux (Tonya Pinkins). Whereas Noah sees the sacrifice less as a punishment and more as a devious means by which to buy his way into a family livelier than his own, Caroline sizes up the tactic as a foolish employer's disregard for a worker's dignity. The other change that's coin of the realm in a story taking place in Lake Charles, Louisiana circa 1963-64 is the shift of civil rights attitudes and their immediate effects on blacks and liberal Jews. It's Kushner's accomplishment that Noah's problem with loose change jingles sonorously in the broader political climate.

Working every day in one of the few local houses with a basement, Caroline feels down in the dumps. She's somewhat heartened by a radio that's embodied in a Supremes-like girl group made up of Tracy Nicole Chapman, Marva Hicks, and Ramona Keller, not to mention a washing machine and dryer that are respectively embodied by a singing Capathia Jenkins and Chuck Cooper, but the cheer amid the Cheer only goes so far. Caroline may relax over her one cigarette a day and may even allow Noah to light it for her, but no radio, washer, or dryer genuinely relieve her of worry about raising her rebellious daughter Emmie (Anika Noni Rose) and playful sons Jackie (Leon G. Thomas III) and Joe (Marcus Carl Franklin) while her oldest son is off in Vietnam. It irks her that the coins about which Noah is so careless can add up to pay for a visit to the dentist, to cite only one use to which they might be put; her temptation to take advantage of the situation rankles and yet she refuses to alter her beliefs about what's right and wrong for her and her children.

Because Kushner was raised in Lake Charles (though born in New York City) and because activism is ingrained in him, he brings passion and understanding to the tale, which also features a moon (Aisha de Haas) constant only in her iteration of the changes affecting Caroline. In turn, Caroline's solemn moods work changes on the Gellman clan, which includes Noah's taciturn clarinetist father Stuart (David Costabile), his middle-class parents (Reathel Bean and Alice Playten), and Rose's visiting New York leftist father (Larry Keith).

Perhaps not an autobiographical piece in every detail but autobiographical all the same, Caroline, or Change has much to say about family relations and race relations. It will come as no surprise to anyone who knows Kushner's Angels in America that he has an unusual facility for intertwining dramatic stories. Increasingly, Caroline has her hands full with Emmie since the young girl is simultaneously influenced by Martin Luther King's preaching against violence and beginning to think that there are more attractive alternatives to toiling in white people's homes. Under the Gellman roof, Noah -- hose mother has died not that long before the story begins -- isn't warming up to his stepmother, and Rose knows it. She also knows that she's not communicating with her husband, who has only the clarinet through which to express his lasting grief over his first wife's demise.

Things come to a head when Rose's dad gives Noah a $20 bill as a Chanukah gift and Noah leaves the money in his pants. What the boy says to Caroline about reclaiming it from her and what she replies leads to Kushner's melancholy conclusion, a wise reflection on how societal and personal stirrings affect the locked-in-their-time Carolines of this world.

A man with many projects always in the pipeline, Kushner decided to approach this one as a musical and so teamed with the talented melodist Jeanine Tesori. Together, they've written a number of sequences in which Kushner's inanimate and animate characters express themselves separately and in concert. They've composed a second act Caroline's Turn wherein Tonya Pinkins figuratively gets to rearrange the stage as a forum for her crackling performing abilities. Another of the score's highlights is a moving dirge for a bus (Chuck Cooper again) on the subject of the JFK shooting: "The earth has bled / Now come the flood," he intones resonantly. And then there are the songs for the household applicances. Considering that a singing washing machine and dryer aren't an everyday event, it could be said the Kushner-Tesori score is a spin cycle.

The musical's imaginative use of music notwithstanding, Caroline, or Change is a problematic work. Not to put too fine a point on it, but Kushner's lyrics engender resistance. What he demonstrates with these songs is that he's learned something of the songwriting craft but not enough, and it's no pleasure to report that his lyric-writing actually compromises his dramaturgical brilliance. The songs in which rhymed couplets prevail shrink Kushner's usual breadth; by couching so much of his observations in that mode, he seems to simplify the characters, almost as if he's dumbing them down. There's no rule that says complex character study can't be achieved in song -- Stephen Sondheim does it all the time -- but that skill eludes Kushner at this point.

Chandra Wilson, Tonya Pinkins, and
Anika Noni Rose in Caroline, or Change
(Photo © Michal Daniel)
The relationship between Rose and Stuart seems particularly affected by the stinting on layered richness; Kushner and Tesori apparently choose to look at Stuart through the clarinet motif but it's an insufficient approach. That the climactic rift between Caroline and Noah is reminiscent of the confrontation in Athol Fugard's Master Harold...and the Boys hasn't to do with the lyrics but the uncomfortable feeling that characters are being sold short does. Worse, to accommodate Kushner's neophyte lyrics, Tesori occasionally allows her melodic lines to ramble and ultimately become repetitive. Before the final fade out, the score has begun to pall.

George C. Wolfe, who easily handles plays or musicals, gave this Public Theater offering his usual ready-for-Broadway-transfer glow with the help of Riccardo Hernandez's shifting set pieces, lighting by Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer, sound design by Jon Weston, and savvy '60s costumes by Paul Tazewell. And he's collected a cast that's ready to put the Kushner-Tesori notions across. Pinkins, with whom Wolfe worked on Jelly's Last Jam, banks the fires that raged in the earlier play as a woman who's starting to suspect she oughtn't be set in her ways but is confused about how to change them. As Noah, young Harrison Chad -- looking a bit overfed as do many children of privilege -- smartly walks the fine line between irritating and cute. Cox, Bean, Playten, and Keith limn the Gellman-Stopnik kin well while Thomas, Franklin, and Rose do the Thibodeaux side proud. (Rose is especially impressive when singing Emmie's adolescent heart out.) As the all-singing, sometimes dancing appliances -- choreographed by Hope Clarke -- Jenkins, Chapman, Hicks, and Keller make joyful noises, while Cooper has great vocal presence in his dual assignment. And Chandra Wilson is staunch as Dottie, Caroline's mince-no-words friend.

Throughout Caroline, or Change there are compelling musical interludes and generous samplings of Tony Kushner's persistent intelligence, yet this potent show would have been even more potent had the score reached the high standards that Kushner has elsewhere established for himself.

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