I should have written about this before now as I saw it some weeks back. But then again I was so overwhelmed by it when I saw it, I don’t think I could have focused my written thoughts on it. Tony Kushner’s Caroline Or Change is somewhere between a musical and an opera. It is composed-through and that in itself is an astonishing
feat for the cast to perform. The music by Jeanine Tesori – and to quote its Wikipedia entry – “combines spirituals, blues, Motown , classical music, and Jewish klezmer and folk music”. To say combines is an understatement. Jeanine Tesori herself describes it as a collage. And because this is a theatre piece suffused in history, she must know full well what she is doing with this composition. Set in Alabama in the 1960’s, the stage is the household of a middle class Jewish family: a husband with his second wife (his first has died) and their young son. Much of their life is lived upstairs whilst in the basement is their maid, Caroline (Sharon D. Clarke), trapped “16 feet beneath the sea”, working alone with a singing washing machine and dryer. Yes, this is a profoundly important piece about Jewish and Black American history at a pivotal time of change and it has a singing washing machine and dryer, played by Me’sha Bryan in a costume of plastic bubbles and Ako Mitchell in boiler suit and red-lit hoop, respectively. There’s also her radio portrayed by three harmonising female singers. The set and costumes are by Fly Davis who designed the amazing set for Beginning (which I may have mentioined before).
The catalyst for the change to come to the household, which is inextricably linked with the African American Civil Rights movement whose birthing pains have violently begun “above ground”, is simply the fact that the young boy, Noah who spends a lot of time with Caroline as he is failing to get on with his father’s new wife, leaves change in the pockets of his trousers. Caroline is responsible for the laundry, tells Noah’s mother and she tells Caroline to keep the money, so the boy learns some responsibility. As soon as that happens the audience knows there’s trouble ahead, but the story opts for no preaching. Instead Caroline, her family, her community, her employer’s Jewish family and the world around all of this start to merge and collide as the glorious music and singing steam along to a climax that took my breath away; Sharon D. Clark’s momentous Lot’s Wife, when the politics of family, individual, community and society all unite (as they should, as they must) is not a show stopper, it’s a heart stopper.
There’s much humour in the play particularly a clash between Caroline, her daughter Emmie (another astonishing performance from Abiona Omonua) and Mr Stopnik, Noah’s stepmother’s father in which an undercutting of wit makes you realise change will happen when thoughtful people of opposing views are willing to challenge, listen and reflect on each other’s words. There are three children in the story and played by young children on stage who will obviously have no idea of the importance of this piece, and how their own lives have been, are and will continue to be affected by the change of the Civil Rights Movement. Seeing them onstage has its own quiet political impact.
I saw Angels In America when it was first performed in the National Theatre’s Cottesloe in 1992/3. It changed my life. Its effect on me at that time of my life was extraordinary. But also as Henry Goodman (one of that original cast) says in this interview in The Stage:
” We were never more than 20 or 30ft from the audience in the Cottesloe and all around us people were biting their nails and feeling very exposed while we had to be brave and yet intimate and vulnerable. The audience were literally knocked back in their seats and you sensed that they walked out of the theatre, feeling culpable because they had ignored the issues raised in the play that they had just seen.”
In the same article Declan Donellan, the director of that production says:
“Angels in America is not a play about being gay, nor about having HIV, nor about politics, nor philosophy, nor history, nor memory, nor is it about the pain of living, the need for redemption, nor the need for some sense of soul. Angels in America is a great play because it is about people; people caught in desperate situations, people facing extreme dilemmas, people whose lives are intimately affected and changed by all the things mentioned above and many more.”
I would say this is completely true of Caroline Or Change. It took me back to witnessing that first Angels production. I saw it at Hampstead, an intimate theatre like the Cottesloe (now the Dorfman). It is a play about people, before and beyond anything else. But I too walked out feeling culpable, feeling I have ignored or been ignorant of the issues I had just seen. How much has changed and how much has not changed in Louisiana from 1820, from 1963 to2018?