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Tony Kushner on "Caroline or Change"
By Tony Kushner

'CAROLINE OR CHANGE'  is running at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre, 230 W. 49th St. Tickets: (800) 432-7250.
by :Hedy Weiss

Hedy Weiss, a former professional dancer, now theatre and dance critic for the Chicago Sun-Times.

In the new, quasi-autobiographical musical for which he has supplied both the book and lyrics, Tony Kushner ("Angels in America"), tells the story of a middle-age black maid who works for a Jewish family in Lake Charles, La., in 1963.

While the civil rights movement is erupting in the larger world just outside the door, a palpable racial tension lurks in the dank basement laundry room of the Gellmans' home where Caroline Thibodeaux (the uncompromising Tonya Pinkins), spends many of her working hours. The cause of that tension is deep and multifaceted, but it reaches the breaking point as a result of a strange and destructive little game that ultimately destroys her relationship with the alienated young boy, Noah Gellman (Harrison Chad), who in many ways looks to her as his surrogate mother.

This game, devised by Noah's stepmother, Rose (Veanne Cox), is supposed to teach the boy the value of the nickels, dimes and quarters he leaves in his dirty clothes. According to her rules, the unremoved change is supposed to become the property of Caroline. This is all fine and good until Noah leaves a $20 bill from his grandfather in his pocket. His break with Caroline over possession of this money is sharp, irrevocable and life-altering for both of them. And it compounds Caroline's rage while planting profound guilt in Noah.

The story mixes realism with a sort of pop-surreal fable style. And for her score, composer Jeanine Tesori draws largely on the gamut of black music of the time, from the ever-present blues, to the sexualized rock of Little Richard, to the emerging Motown sound (a sassy Supremes-like trio plays the role of The Radio, from which emanates all the new sounds of the period that Caroline spends her time listening to while ironing.) This music does not translate into action for the bitter but conservative Caroline, but it does accompany the liberation of her spirited teenage daughter.

Tesori, who demonstrated a real feel for the black idiom in her earlier musical, "Violet" (she also penned the score for "Thoroughly Modern Millie"), does so again here. Unfortunately, Kushner, in the classic style of a self-loathing Jew, has little but revulsion for his own roots. You can hear it and feel it throughout, most notably when the Gellmans, modestly successful first generation Jews, sing their Hanukkah songs.

In the May 9 issue of Sunday Showcase, theater critic Hedy Weiss reviewed several current Broadway productions, including "Caroline or Change," written by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tony Kushner. Mr. Kushner asked for an opportunity to respond to Weiss' comments;


Tony Kushner, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of several plays, Kushner, is known for producing work that is largely politically motivated and primarily deals with moral responsibility during politically repressive times. He is the author of several critically acclaimed plays, including "A Bright Room Called Day," "Slavs," "Homebody/Kabul," and the seven-hour, two-part epic "Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes."
"Angels in America" earned Kushner a Pulitzer Prize, two Tony Awards, two Drama Desk Awards, the Evening Standard Award, two Olivier Award Nominations, the New York Critics Circle Award, the Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle Award and the LAMBDA Literary Award for Drama.
A television version of "Angels in America" was produced by Home Box Office Films and premiered on the cable network in December 2003. Mike Nichols directed the television version, which features actors Al Pacino, Meryl Streep and Emma Thompson.
His most recent production is the musical "Caroline, or Change," which is having a critically acclaimed run on Broadway. In addition, he recently published the picture book "Brundibar," based on the American version of the opera of the same name. The book was crafted with author and illustrator Maurice Sendak, who provides illustrations for "Brundibar." Kushner also wrote the text for "The Art of Maurice Sendak: 1980 to the Present," a new survey book of Sendak's illustrations and stage designs.

Here is his reply:

I don't respond publicly to reviews. I've wanted to, of course, but it can't be done to any good purpose. I've learned that a good play lasts a lot longer than a bad review. So I keep my irritation to myself.

I must, however, answer a vicious ad hominem attack by the Sun-Times' drama critic, Hedy Weiss, reviewing my musical, "Caroline, or Change." Ms. Weiss wrote: "Kushner, in the classic style of a self-loathing Jew, has little but revulsion for his own roots. You can hear it and feel it throughout, most notably when the Gellmans, modestly successful first-generation Jews, sing their Hanukkah songs."

"Caroline" has received many reviews -- some great, some mixed, some negative. None has accused me of me being a Jewish anti-Semite. Ms. Weiss doesn't quote a word from my play to support her slur. After I complained, Ms. Weiss sent me an e-mail explaining her accusation. She admitted that she decided I hated being Jewish and hated Judaism not because of what I wrote, because of the "tone" of the production, the "body language" of the actors, and the fact that Caroline's black characters have, in her opinion, better music. She concluded by writing that "stereotypes" about "Jews and money" are "unworthy of propagating," though, typically, she cites no specific stereotypes from the play, nor anything more specific than the joint presence of Jewish characters and a story line about money.

There's a reason for her lack of specificity: there are no such stereotypes in the play, and there is not a single line of text to corroborate her charge. Indeed, the play manifests my deep affection for the Southern Jewish characters, who are drawn in part from memories of my family; I am proud of their decency, their love of America and their liberal values, and I have celebrated these in "Caroline."

The New York Times will soon be reprinting the Tony-nominated text of the main Hanukkah song from "Caroline," which ends with the beautiful prayer, "Mi Kamocha." I invite anyone who is curious to read it, and see if you can find a shred of revulsion or self-loathing in it.

A playwright can be flatly accused of hating his own people without a single word cited from the play in question. That's appalling, and so is the fact that Ms. Weiss' editors were willing to publish her offensive words without demanding that she produce evidence for them. It goes beyond the bounds of criticism, and indeed of ethical behavior, to make such a charge without accountability.

Critics are journalists, and when they're leveling a grave personal charge rather than expressing an opinion, they have the same responsibility for accuracy and substantiation as any other journalist. Ms. Weiss and her editors, in this instance, failed in their responsibilities. A newspaper's arts coverage should be no less serious than the reportage on its front page. I can't imagine, by way of comparison, that a Sun-Times reporter would be able to call a political figure a "classic self-loathing Jew" on a hunch.

It is worth noting that Ms. Weiss' discomfort with "Caroline's" music and staging does not lead her to accuse the show's non-Jewish composer and director of anti-Semitism. The term "self-loathing Jew" is notorious for its use as a blunt instrument to silence dissent and efface difference within the Jewish community.

Ms. Weiss previously tossed an accusation of anti-Semitism at the dance company Pilobolus when reviewing a dance commissioned by the National Foundation for Jewish Culture (which has awarded me a Jewish Cultural Achievement Award). I suppose I should be consoled by the fact that I am in good company. I am not consoled.

In every religious or ethnic group one finds irascible people who arrogate unto themselves the job of policing who is and who isn't a good and loyal member of the community. Such people rarely contribute anything to the community other than pain, and always fail to understand that it is the heterogeneity of any community of people that gives it life.

I am immensely proud of being Jewish -- a sentence I should not have to write in response to Ms. Weiss' ugly and baseless charge. I have written extensively about being Jewish. Nothing makes me prouder than hearing, as I often do, that my work is identified as Jewish-American literature. My anger at this critic and her editors for accusing me of hatred for the Jewish people -- for my people -- exceeds my abilities to express it.

Source: Copyright 2004, Digital Chicago Inc.

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There are currently 8 comments about this article:

1.Jewish stereotyping
  Ernie Pressburger, New Jersey    (7/25/2004)
2.Ms. Weiss's comments
  Justice, Minnesota    (8/6/2005)
3.Critic or Complainer
  Montaine, Duluth    (8/6/2005)
4.Your are Lucky
  Horace Long, Chicago    (9/2/2006)
5.Caroline or Change
  M.Ladenheim, Surrey(UK)    (12/15/2006)
6.Jews in Angels in America
  Lawrence Goodman, Providence, RI USA    (6/19/2008)
7.A reconsideration
  Lawrence Goodman, Providence, RI    (11/7/2008)
8.Full of Bad Stereotypes
  Wilbur, Twin Cities    (6/15/2009)

Tonya Pinkins in "Caroline, or Change."

Critic Hedy Weiss

Playwright Tony Kushner

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