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Black maid stands at center of Southern Jewish family Civil rights era
By Lisa Traiger

A $20 bill turns young Noah Gellman's world upside down in Caroline, or Change, the ambitiously imaginative musical from the prolific pen of playwright Tony Kushner.

Kushner is the much decorated author of, among other works, A Bright Room Called Day (now onstage at Washington's Rorschach Theater); the politically charged treatise, Homebody/Kabul; and the sweeping meditation on fin de siecle America, Angels in America.

The Studio Theatre's new production features a top-of-the-line cast, a meticulous sung-through score by Jeanine Tesori (composer of Thoroughly Modern Millie) and an intimate staging that explores the not-so-colorblind relations between Southern Jews and blacks during the height of the civil rights era.

But Caroline, or Change is a personal play, not a political one. And while politics do indeed matter for Kushner, this work, which premiered on Broadway in 2004 and is being seen for the first time since in Studio's fresh production, plays close to the heart. Its co-star, 12-year-old Max Talisman, plays Noah as a serious and sober 8-year-old who yearns to be loved in a household with a distant father, still grieving over the death of his wife, and an uncertain new stepmother at her wit's end on how to reach out to this brokenhearted youngster.

But Caroline (the staunchly stalwart Julia Nixon with a resounding voice, part churchy gospel, part wrenching blues), the family's overworked, underpaid maid, connects with young Noah. The pair share secrets and cigarettes in the basement laundry room, which in Kushner's libretto thrums with living, breathing, singing appliances: a washing machine that goes swish swish swish, played with royal grandeur by honey-voiced Allison Blackwell, and a dryer that rumbles like a clap of thunder, sung with an effective bass by Elmore James. And who can switch off the radio, a Motown trio with bouffants and spangled dresses to rival Diana Ross and the Supremes? This is Caroline's world, where sweat and laundry mingle with magical realism and bitter envy and a longing to change a painful past.

For Noah, Caroline is a goddess, an Amazon, even president of the world. There's nothing in his eyes that this maid, in her starched, white uniform and pulled-back hair, can do wrong. Until, that is, the innocent decree from his stepmother, Rose (an intrepid Tia Speros), that all loose pocket change left in Noah's pants becomes Caroline's.

At first, this game of nickels and dimes plays out innocently. Young Noah feels a sense of power in the good he believes he's doing to help his family's maid buy sweets and treats for her three children.

But when the lad leaves in his pocket a $20 bill ‹ Chanukah gelt from an out-of-town grandpa ‹ the relationship erupts.

And this is where Kushner shines, in digging into the emotional landscape of an unlikely relationship and showing the shards that remain after it shatters. The precipitating decree, offered in innocence, resonates with the larger thematic ideals Kushner mines: that legendary close ties among blacks and Jews during the early 1960s and beyond are perhaps not as warm and heartfelt as many choose to believe.

In Lake Charles, La., Kushner's real boyhood home, more friction than love binds the working-class African Americans and their middle-class white employers. Rose, the guilt-filled Northern stepmother, seems pained to make amends to her hired help; thus, her "keep the change" gambit. That this dialogue, filled with a blues, gospel and a Motown-infused score, gorgeously sung by the small and talented cast, tarnishes what Kushner sees as a beloved Jewish myth is sure to cause some squirming and objections from Jewish theatergoers of a certain generation.

Aside from dealing in black-Jewish relations, Caroline, or Change plays another trope, too: the Jewish family story. The centerpiece is a klezmer-inspired Chanukah party, with latkes, a hora and rousing singing.

But all isn't well in the rocky household: Noah's father, Stuart (Bobby Smith), is a mere cipher. It's Caroline, archetypical as a black maid with a magical sensibility to heal her young charge, who stands at the soulful center of this work, stuck though she is in a wash-and-spin cycle while her own children, particularly outspoken daughter Emmie (the vivacious Trisha Jeffrey), ache for more than separate and unequal. Kushner, never afraid to probe tough, unasked questions, once again challenges the Jewish community to look carefully at its own mythmaking.

Director Greg Ganakas skillfully mines his cast's talents, making magic out of the ordinary, particularly Debra Booth's spare bilevel set, with its 1960s washer and dryer and brilliant, low-slung moon in the background. Pianist/music director Howard Breitbart's offstage orchestra richly supports the sung-through score. Among the cast, Caroline's friend, Dotty Moffett (played by Kelly J. Rucker), is both spunky and fearless, while only the Gellman grandparents (Ilona Dulaski and Jim Scopeletis) seem slightly overdrawn.

"Change come fast and change come slow, but change come," sings Caroline, resolute about the inevitable ‹ and in this, she's right on the money.

Caroline, or Change is onstage through June 25 at the Studio Theatre, in Washington, D.C. Tickets, $47-$62, are available by calling 202-332-3300.


Source: Copyright 2006, Washington Jewish Week

Related Links:

  • Read additional reviews by Lisa Traiger
  • "Caroline, or Change," in NY

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