Nothing ever happen underground
cause they ain’t no underground
There is only
So runs the double-edged refrain sung by Caroline Thibodeaux, the title character of Tony Kushner’s musical Caroline or Change, a poignant portrait of how people pressed to the bottom of society react when they have no underground movement to support them. Particularly, the piece draws out the psyche of a maid who spends her days doing laundry in the sweaty underground basement (an anomaly in Louisiana) of a middle class home in Lake Charles, the walls dank, humid and hot as hell from the drenched ground that presses up against them. Caroline (a flawless Tonya Pinkins) is strong, and Caroline is tough. And if
Caroline can’t let anyone in—if her emotional access it blocked—it’s because she can’t afford vulnerability.
An impregnable central character for a musical, you might think, and so she is. But the change that swirls around her on stage is so dazzling, seductive and entertaining that her own lack of emotion pliancy at the center does not keep the piece from moving the audience. Indeed, it is her pragmatic and steadfast resistance to change, despite its clear beauty and possibilities, which is so moving.
For, you see, it’s not that there is no underground movement in Louisiana; there is just not one for Caroline. Her daughter Emmie—played by Anika Noni Rose, who makes her astonishing, clear-voiced, irrefutably present performance seem easy—has discovered Martin Luther King, Jr. She shares his dream. Young, clear and strong, she emerges from her braids and bobby sox the moment she opens her mouth, as a mature woman in the making and a clear thinker. She inherits Caroline’s rage, but in a more accessible, focused form. She has had the opportunity to watch her mother and know that this is not what she wants to become. "C’mon teach me what you know/ How to keep your head tucked low," she challenges Caroline in a scene that understandably ends with a slap. But Caroline has unwittingly fostered a child with a little more room to think and question and choose her own path, and someday to even understand her mother. In a stunning solo, Emmie sings how, if she must be alone and childless to be a strong proud woman, this is the sacrifice she will make. Another generation is on its way.
What pressures these characters into revelation is Caroline’s relationship to the young boy, Noah Gellman (actor Harrison Chad, freshly inhabiting the role of a young Kushner), the son of Caroline’s employers. He worships Caroline, heart-breakingly channeling towards her his love for his recently deceased mother, a love which his emotionally closed-off clarinetist father is too heart-broken and closed down to receive (in a lovely moment, the boy confides that his father is a clarinet, his mother was a bassoon, and together they played a duet). His new step-mother Rose (Veanne Cox), a New York transplant whose voice is wonderfully proper and tinny against the lush, resonant music of the Louisiana setting, wants the boy to love and accept her, but to no avail. So she woos with domestic tough love, setting out to mold him into a responsible little man, and trusting that eventually he will thank her for it.
Distraught that Noah leaves change in the pockets of his dirty clothes—a gesture which Rose feels sends an embarrassingly nonchalant message to Caroline, who, she knows makes "bubkus"—Rose tells Caroline that when Noah does this, from now on she can "keep the change." Rose means well, as all liberals do, but in her solution to the maid’s poor salary and the boy’s bad habits, she invokes the American system of wage-paying that makes service workers pander for their pay. Caroline resists the tipping as well as she can, but in the midst of her struggle ("I don’t take pennies from babies"), she finally explains, "Thirty dollars every week/ And I am mean and strong and tough but…/Thirty dollars ain’t enough." In what I found to be one of the most moving moments in the play, she swallows her pride, and pockets the change.
It is enough to say that the conflict at the play’s heart, between Noah and Caroline, will come from this set-up. As the boy’s step-grandfather, a radical Jewish Marxist from New York, explains to his daughter: this rift became inevitable when she in effect made the boy Caroline’s employer.
Through the play, which he admits is largely autobiographical, Kushner looks back with mature eyes and pulls apart the delicate strands which made up the tangled socio-political and emotional webs of his own youth. In this exorcism of demons, guilt and love, he has crafted his very own Long Days Journey into Night through the lens of a 1960s southern upbringing—inhabited as it was by swirls of music and social change, a remote father, an absent mother, his cold but well-meaning stepmother, the yearning grief of loss, and the historically invisible made visible: a maid, drowning beneath the weight of society.
This is perhaps one of the most widely reviewed plays for some time—and as a result, the attention ranges from gleaming "I want to be the first to champion it" enthusiasm to counter-reactive begrudging goodwill weighed down with caveats. Don’t buy the hype—just go see it for yourself. It’s a play and a production that no textual reading will do justice to, with performances that are nothing short of dazzling. Composer Jeanine Tesori (Thoroughly Modern Millie) elegantly brings the popular to Kushner’s politics, and George C. Wolfe’s direction draws out the beauty and emotion. Surely it will move to Broadway, but see it in its intimate first home at the Public. It’s a production you will be sorry to miss.
Caroline, or Change opened December 1st at the
Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street.
For tickets, call 212-239-6200.