Hornby, Richard, The Hudson Review
THE LIST OF AMERICAN PLAYWRIGHTS who had stunning early success only to fade in their middle age is long: Edward Sheldon, Philip Barry, Clifford Odets, William Saroyan, Oscar Hammerstein II, Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, Edward Albee, and even Eugene O'Neill. Fortunately, many of them recovered. Barry and Albee wrote strong later works, Hammerstein followed up six flops in a row with Oklahoma! and turned into an American icon, while O'Neill, written off by the late 1930s, was actually entering his best period at the time. Arthur Miller was similarly written off twenty years later but continued to write good plays.
Thus there is still hope for Tony Kushner, whose Angek in America astonished the world on its Broadway appearance in 1993 with its bold themes, incredible energy, spectacular characters, vigorous dialog, and historic vision, but who has turned out little in quantity or quality in the intervening years. Unfortunately, his latest work, the opera Caroline, or Change, is anything but a comeback.
The opera is set in 1963 Lake Charles, Louisiana, based on Kushner's own experiences growing up there. The word "change" in the title refers to the civil rights movement that was sweeping the South at the time, and also, believe it or not, to the pocket change of the child protagonist. It deals with the former subject perfunctorily and the latter obsessively.
Noah Gellman, eight years old, is a member of a Jewish family living in the South but with roots in the North. His mother is dead, and his father has remarried, to a New York woman Noah despises. The stepmother is decent and conscientious but generally tries too hard to be a mother to Noah, who would probably hate anybody usurping the place of the deceased paragon. Noah is drawn instead to the family black maid, Caroline Thibodeaux. Caroline does not reciprocate his feelings, tolerating Noah at best, too concerned with her own family problems to befriend a troubled white boy.
The inciting event that leads to the major conflict in the play arises from the change that Noah tends to leave in the pockets of his dirty clothes. Rose, the stepmother, gets fed up and informs him that in the future Caroline will be allowed to keep any money she finds in the laundry. "Think of the things she could do with these quarters, these nickels and pennies." Caroline, however, is appalled by Rose's condescension, crying, "I don't want it! I ain't some ragpick. Ain't some jackdaw." She continues to return the coins to Noah, and once to his father, who seems to have the same carelessness about money that his son has. The climax of the play, however, occurs when she discovers a twenty-dollar bill in the pocket of Noah's pants, a Chanukah gift from his grandfather, which she announces she is going to keep. After an anguished confrontation, which is really about the patronizing way she has been treated by the whole family rather than about the money, she gives him back the bill and walks out of the job. There is later a reconciliation of sorts, but when Noah asks if they can be friends again, she austerely replies, "Weren't never friends."
The entire opera, then, turns on this minor gaffe, the straw that broke the camel's back. Unfortunately for the drama, however, the camel was not carrying much to begin with. The civil rights movement remains offstage, not involving the white or the black characters, even though Louisiana was a hotbed of activity at the time. I was living there myself in those days and cannot imagine white liberals or blacks of any persuasion not caught up in boycotts, marches, voter registration, and integration of schools, buses, restaurants, and public buildings. But all we get in Caroline are some radio reports of Martin Luther King, the freedom marchers, and the Kennedy assassination. During the Chanukah party, Noah's grandfather, an old lefty visiting from New York, argues with the black servants that the civil rights movement is not belligerent enough-he wrongly believes that nonviolence means passivity-but the discussion is abstract, unrelated to anything the servants might do there in Lake Charles. …