When I went to see what turned out to be an extraordinary production of the Broadway musical Caroline, or Change (playwright Tony Kushner, composer Jeanine Tesori) I wasn’t sure what to expect. I remembered reading about it when it first premiered in New York, over a decade ago. I knew it concerned around the relationship between a young Jewish boy, and the black maid who works in his house, during the early sixties. My worry was that it might be a theatrical variation on The Help, the well-meaning, blockbuster movie that featured two extraordinary black actresses in the title roles, yet somehow still managed to revolve entirely around the young middle class white woman telling the story.
Caroline was emphatically NOT The Help on Broadway, and the reasons why will be explored later in this post. However, first some general accolades: I had never heard of new local theater company Tantrum Theater before this show, but after it, I would gladly go see anything they produce. With national-level talent recruited from Broadway and Hollywood (including Robert Barry Fleming as director, and the amazing Christina Acosta Robinson in the title role) the production was the equal of any I’ve seen on Broadway. Furthermore, given the smallness of the theater, it was far more intimate and immediate.
The live, onstage musical ensemble was terrific. I’ve never been a fan of sung-through productions, but Tesori’s score ranged from doo-wop to klezmer, while complementing Kushner’s razor sharp lyrics, and somehow made it all feel perfectly natural. I’d even go so far as to call it the first modern musical whose soundtrack I could fully embrace. The characters were acutely observed, the play moved inexorably forward, the laughs were genuine, and so was the emotional weight of the narrative. I would place it without question among the great classics of American theater –a piece of stagecraft that makes you a better person just by watching it.
With all that said, let us return for a moment to The Help. In that popular film, the two main roles, played by Oscar winners Octavia Spenser and Viola Davis, have real personality and moral authority. They strive and ultimately triumph, and are the clear heroes as opposed to the villainous white bigots who oppress them. Yet for all that, there is a certain thinness to their stories. What we see of them is only what can be observed through the gaze of the young white heroine. To her, they are the saints of her childhood, kind and nurturing figures as opposed to the chilliness of her actual parents. The bond between the maids and the young white children in their care is the major relationship in The Help, and the movie takes for granted that it is as significant to one as to the other. Then too, there is a certain phoniness to The Help, as exemplified by a contrived happy ending that doesn’t quite ring true. The young author writes her bestselling book, while the underappreciated maids finally have their own stories told, but at the end, she goes off to New York. After the credits roll, they presumably return to domestic servitude.
Sentimentality and phoniness are two things stripped right out of Caroline, or Change. Although the semi-autobiographical play has a central character, “Noah” (the young boy), standing in for playwright Kushner, there is a depth and a clear-eyed realism to it that liberates us from Noah’s limited perspective. Accordingly, there are certain cold truths that Kushner doesn’t shy away from. The relationship between Noah and Caroline is an inherently unequal and exploitative one. She is underpaid and overworked, and trapped in her job by the artificially limited opportunities for black people in that time and place. She may stand, however unwillingly, in the role of a substitute mother for Noah, but, like the slavery-era Mammies forced to raise their Master’s children, she lacks any true authority over him. He adores her, and she endures him, but late in the play, when they clash over money, he attacks her with a racist threat, and she responds with an anti-Semetic sermon before walking off the job.
The penultimate scene is surely as unsentimental and un-sugarcoated as any in any musical, ever. Caroline, horrified by her betrayal of her own stern moral code, and unwilling to see her children starve, sees no choice but come back to work, swallowing her pride, and crushing her dreams. Yet Kushner chooses a unexpected way to conclude the show –with a more uplifting solo by an significant but peripheral character, Caroline’s fiery daughter Emmy, a spiritual sister to A Raisin In The Sun‘s Beneatha. As the curtain symbolically closes, Emmy’s closing words are a strong statement of faith in herself and the bright future she sees ahead. She and her siblings, she promises, will take forward their mother’s strength and moral fiber, but not allow the world to defeat them in the way it has defeated her.
In addition to allowing the audience to leave the theater with some sense of hope, the scene does pass the test of historical accuracy –we know that the civil rights era youth did stand up and successfully fight for their rights, and that many of them built brighter futures for themselves, even in the deepest parts of the South. But there’s an additional aspect to Emmy’s story arc that is subtly but significantly unusual. It is almost entirely unaffected by any of the white characters in the play. Her one interaction with any non-black character comes at a party, where she holds her own in an argument with an overbearing Marxist, much to her mother’s horror. Other than that, her utter independence is stressed by the fact that she’s even entirely unaffected by President Kennedy’s death –as she tells Caroline, she doesn’t have time to cry for some “dead white guy.” She even practices willful ignorance of Noah’s attempts to ingratiate himself by directing his spare change towards Caroline’s family. In the hands of another writer, Noah’s self-serving charity might be reframed as a life-changing transformative event. Here it goes all but unnoticed by one of its putative beneficiaries.
In case it’s not obvious, this is very unusual. Many white writers seem subconsciously threatened by the thought black people could have their own lives that don’t revolve around white people –or perhaps it’s just a possibility that never occurs to them. As the grown-up version of Noah, however, Kushner casts his clear-eyed gaze on Emmy, and sees an independent person, living her own life, equally immune to his love and his hate. Her triumphant story-arc, featuring her secret role in the destruction of a statue honoring a Confederate soldier, is once again relevant to front page headlines, fifteen years after the play was written, and fifty years after its setting.