All Kushner, All the Time: Caroline Changes Rules of the Game

My favorite Jewish homosexual socialist playwright, Tony Kushner, is on a roll, and we are glad. His joyful, wholly successful collaboration with the composer Jeanine Tesori on Caroline, or Change at the Public Theater is a quiet and monumental achievement in American musical theater.

Immensely moving and totally unsentimental, it touches a rare pinnacle. Tears are best earned; easy sentiment belongs to traditionally glitzy, milk-it Broadway. “Salty, salty, salty teardrops,” as the Supremes-like song from the radio goes during the show in ironic showbiz counterpoint to the most shatteringly raw lament I’ve ever heard in the theater.

Not that the playwright and the gifted Ms. Tesori don’t shine it on. The score isn’t grave: Ms. Tesori uses everything from jazz-funk to blues, klezmer and soul, from near-operetta to a catchy children’s play song. In its uncompromised essence, Caroline, or Change is a chamber piece and fable, and it’s a tragedy of American life told with abundant wit and generosity of heart. In its restrained and gentle way, it is purely what it is. It asks us modestly and in all transparent simplicity to listen to a short story and watch it magically unfold. The way it unfolds brings particular joy to me.

We are our imagination. But Mr. Kushner is going after the imaginatively near-impossible: an adult story that also appears to come from a child’s point of view. His recent, fruitful collaboration with Maurice Sendak has been an influence. (But so has Brecht, Marx, Melville, perhaps Robert Louis Stevenson and-knowing a little about Mr. Kushner-probably a thousand others.) The artless naïveté of George C. Wolfe’s very fine production accounts for the seductive freshness of the remarkable evening. The simple, mysterious magic onstage seems dreamily natural, even real. The defining achievement of the show is that it returns the theater to a revitalized sense of play that creates its own convention.

With Caroline, or Change , the usual rules no longer apply. In the suffocating basement world of the heroine, Caroline Thibodeaux-a black, near-illiterate maid in Louisiana whose spirit is being murdered-the washer, the radio and the dryer come to life. So, too, does the local bus, howling with grief at John F. Kennedy’s assassination, and the moon, promising longed-for change. The inanimate becomes animate, like the best children’s stories. In anyone else’s hands, this would only add to the infantilization of American theater, God forbid. But the voices in the basement sing their own melody: adult, sexy and unpredictably profound. Listen to the Dryer:

Laundry mine now!

You know the story:

let’s make this basement

a purgatory.

Time has come

time has come

time has come

Time has come to suffer heat!

Caroline, or Change takes place in the early 60’s, on the cusp of historic national change during the struggle for civil rights and the death of Kennedy. The story of the black maid drowning in the midst of a middle-class Jewish home in the South, and her relationship with the sad, 8-year-old Noah Gellman, is Mr. Kushner’s semi-autobiographical memory play. Both Caroline and Noah are outsiders under the same roof. In their isolation and unhappiness, neither “belongs.” But in his portrait of the maid’s resilient, woeful anonymity , Mr. Kushner has brought a tragic heroine onstage we might scarcely notice offstage or ever come to know.

Outside, tears and disarray!

Inside, just another day!

All of Mr. Kushner’s plays link private sorrow and public trauma in a metaphor of American tragedy. His vastly underrated Homebody/Kabul was a clairvoyant journey without maps or even common language to Afghanistan-symbolic center of the ravaged, fucked-up, colonized world. Angels in America is plague as metaphor for American disintegration and Reaganite lies. Even an apparently sweet, folkloric piece like Caroline and its parable of change continues Mr. Kushner’s urgent sense of America’s tragic history and hopes for redemption.

As the world’s oldest Bolshevik, Aleksii Antedilluvianovich Prelapsarianov, announces at the start of Perestroika , in a rousing speech that was cut from the TV version: “The Great Question before us is: Are we doomed? The Great Question before us is: Will the Past release us? The Great Question before us is: Can we Change? In Time? And we all desire that Change will come …. “

Is the maid in Caroline, or Change any better off than an impoverished free slave? Resignation and bitterness are oxygen to her. And money is the center of the piece. Divine money-symbol of earthly power sanctified by God-is stamped with a picture of the White House, remember, and the declaration “In God We Trust.” “Thirty dollars every week / And I am mean and strong and tough but … / Thirty dollars ain’t enough.”

We see the life within the Gellman household-the upstairs world of the lonely father, a clarinetist in mourning for his life; the well-meaning stepmother, bourgeois and foolish; the Yiddishkeit relatives and grandpa, the preachy old socialist. There’s the changing black world beyond, too, and Caroline Thibodeaux’s children of the unknown American future. But when the unhappy Noah foolishly insults Caroline, he acknowledges the crime done to the one figure he admires across the abyss: “I did it. I killed her. I did it she died.”

Those are terrible words to hear from a child’s wounded, guilty soul, though Caroline’s unchanging, hard life, hard as nails in a crucifix, killed her, too. Mr. Kushner’s poetic libretto isn’t “poetic,” but muscular and unadorned, speaking the uncluttered language of bare truth. Look at the maid’s desolate howl of grief and rage to an indifferent God:

I’m gonna slam that iron

down on my heart

gonna slam that iron

down on my throat

gonna slam that iron

down on my sex

gonna slam it

slam it

slam it down

until I drown.

I have done less than justice to the supremely gifted cast, led by the extraordinary Tonya Pinkins as Caroline. I’m afraid that I’ve only space to salute the unique talent of the ensemble as a whole. It surely represents the very best performers currently appearing on a New York stage. Mr. Wolfe’s creative team, including the set design of Riccardo Hernandez, the lighting of Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer, and the costumes of Paul Tazewell, have reached their own demanding heights. You must see Caroline, or Change, if you can. It’s the finest musical theater to come our way in a long, long time.