The production of Caroline, or Change currently running in Toronto made me wonder why Tony Kushner’s work isn’t produced more often in Canada.
Kushner is the Pulitzer prize-winning playwright behind Angels in America, an epic two-part work that was successfully adapted for television. As well as plays, he’s done a number of translations, including Berthold Brecht’s Mother Courage And Her Children and co-authored the screenplay to Steven Spielberg’s 2005 film Munich.
The Olivier Award-winning work Caroline, or Change, written in 2003, is partly based on Kushner’s early life, and explores the cauldron of racial tensions in the American South of the 1960s. Unlike the world depicted in Tony Kushner’s play-come-musical, Canada doesn’t share its neighbour’s troubled racial history, but the work, currently on at the Berkeley Street Theatre and co-produced by Toronto’s Obsidian and Acting Up Stage theater companies (running now through February 12th) is proof positive why more Kushner work should be produced here. It’s whip-smart without being preachy, fun without being superficial, and meaningful without being maudlin.
Caroline, or Change revolves around Caroline Thibodeaux (Arlene Duncan), who works as a maid for a Jewish family in 1963 Louisiana. Musician Stuart Gellman (Cameron MacDufee) is mourning the loss of his first wife though he has married her best friend, New Yorker Rose Stopnik (Deborah Hay). His son Noah (Michael Levinson) won’t accept Rose, but forms an unlikely bond with the gruff maid, amidst loads of laundry and lit-up (but not inhaled) cigarettes. Caroline, a thirty-nine year-old divorcee with four kids, bemoans her lot in life but is as scared to change on a personal level as she is angry at its societal counterpart. Jeanine Tesori’s brilliant score is colored by gospel, klezmer, R&B, and ballads, and brought to life through characters both real and imagined. A glamorous gospel-style singer (Londa Larmond) is The Washing Machine, while a man in suspenders and bowler hat (Sterling Jarvis) is The Dryer. They, along with a trio of singers known as “The Radio” (Alana Hibbert, Jewelle Blackman, and Neema Bickersteth, who also doubles as The Moon) act as both a vehicle for Caroline’s internal thoughts and a Greek chorus to her moments of contemplation.
Arlene Duncan and Michael Levinson
The “change” of the title has a double meaning, one that gets played and re-played with gusto by Kushner. Noah leaves coins in his pockets, coins found by Caroline and promptly put in the bleach cup, until Rose tells her to keep whatever she finds as a way of making the boy more responsible. Though she initially has reservations about taking money from a child, Caroline quickly realizes the money will help her family - daughter Emmie (Sabryn Rock), sons Joe (Kaya Joubert Johnson) and Jackie (Derrick Roberts) -buy what would otherwise be unreachable on her weekly thirty-dollar salary. When Caroline finds a twenty dollar bill in Noah’s pants pockets, things... change. The ensuing show-down between she and the boy reveal two people, who for all their differences in age, beliefs, race and class, are equally intransigent and equally terrified of change in their respective lives.
Director Robert McQueen explores Kushner’s complex themes without spoon-feeding his audience with over-simplified visuals, and the set of Caroline, Or Change exemplifies this thoughtful approach. Designer Michael Gianfresco has created an open, raked, multi-tiered contraption that allows the audience to see what’s occurring in various parts of the house and outside its invisible walls simultaneously. Lighting designer Kimberly Purtell uses an intuitive dance of light and shadow, especially in ensemble scenes, where the soft dreams and hard choices each character faces is given moody treatment.
That lighting grows stark with news of the assassination of President Kennedy. Another anthropomorphized character, this time The Bus (Sterling Jarvis), delivers the tragic news brightly lit from behind, a vision of swift change and slow trips, all at once. The scene is heavy with symbolism, and its theatrical staging plays well in the small environs of the Berkeley Street Theatre. That small space is also vertically deep and Gianfresco’s set (Music Director Reza Jacobs’ five-man band is tucked within) has the unfortunate tendency of absorbing sound. Softer, less fully-projected voices get lost, even with micing. Hopefully Sound Designer Peter McBoyle can iron the kinks out, because it’s worth knowing every word of what Emmie and Dotty (Alana Hibbert), two pivotal characters, have to say to Caroline about the change she’s so determined to resist.
Sabryn Rock and Arlene Duncan
Amidst this personal battle, there are many complicated, colorful threads in Kushner’s complicated quilt: civil rights, Jewish identity, black identity, leftist politics, teen rebellion, family strife. A strong central performance is vital to hold it all together, and Arlene Duncan soars, confidently walking the precarious line between dramatic and melodrama. Her Caroline is a woman broken by life, angry, trapped, embarrassed by both her illiteracy and her capacity for vulnerability. Hay is equally mesmerizing, offering us a Rose who smothers with kindness, and whose hurt is painfully close to the surface but rarely given voice. Young Michael Levinson beautifully captures every facet of the confused Noah: mischievous, curious, lonely, mean, playful, awkward. His performance is never cutesy or pie-eyed, but believable, fleshy, and deeply memorable.
As Kushner’s Caroline struggles with change - within herself, inside her pocket - we feel the pangs of change still reverberating in the United States and throughout the world, sensing the struggles around money, class, racism, marginalization and opportunity still swirling in a vast cocktail of painful transformation. So it’s deeply satisfying that Kushner resists a tidy closure for Caroline, or Change; it feels absolutely right for 2012, and beyond. You’re left, despite the spotlights in the final scene, feeling that there’s still such a long way left to go, that Dr. King’s spirit marches on, that his calls for unity and justice haven’t gone unheeded, but that we haven’t quite reached the promised land just yet.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of DigitalJournal.com