Work, motherhood and capitalism on stage
You never really know what you’ll get with a cover of a lesser-known work, a work that has had the mixed blessing of being considered ahead of its time. Have moths gotten there over the years? Does this now fit the way he was supposed to? When Tony Kushner and Jeanine Tesori’s musical “Caroline, or Change” premiered on Broadway in 2004, it received mixed critical reviews, lasted less than four months, and has not been staged here since. . Now “Caroline” is back (in a Roundabout Theater Company production at Studio 54), with English star Sharon D Clarke making her life-changing Broadway debut in the title role. The musical has not only stood the test of time; it has become the present – or perhaps the present has grown to meet it. Either way, this production, directed by Michael Longhurst, should confirm it as a contemporary classic.
The show begins in November 1963. We are in Lake Charles, Louisiana, the home of the Gellmans, a Jewish family with sufficient means, even though they are extensive. Caroline Thibodeaux, the black servant of the Gellmans (“Negro” is the term of the time, and the one Caroline herself prefers), works in the basement, doing the laundry. For company, she has the washing machine (Arica Jackson) and the radio (Harper Miles, Nya and Nasia Thomas), both of whom are personified as black compatriots, the first crowned with a halo of bubbles, the second imagined as a Group of Motown girls with antennas sticking out of their heads. (Fly Davis designed the stunning costumes and sets.) The home appliances job is to make Caroline’s life easier, and they do their best, serenading her with an ecstatic song. But they are not above passing judgment. “Thirty-nine and divorced,” sings the radio. “How the hell is she going to prosper / when her life bury her alive?”
Caroline is angry: with life, which trapped her in other people’s basements for twenty-two years as she struggles to keep a roof over the heads of her four children, and with herself , for not having overcome his regrets. And she is ashamed – of her illiteracy, of having lost a husband whom she loved despite his violence and drunkenness. His bitterness explains his laconic and off-putting mannerisms, but eight-year-old, lonely Noah Gellman (performed, The Night I Saw the Show, by Jaden Myles Waldman) is not disheartened. Caroline is the center of his universe, the woman “who directs everything” and seems, for him, even “stronger than my father”. It is a treat for him to light his daily cigarette. Noah’s mother smoked too. Then cancer killed her, and her father (John Cariani), an emotionally distant clarinetist, remarried Rose Stopnik (Caissie Levy), a New Yorker who feels painfully out of place in this sad family and strange city. from South. Rose can’t seem to attract someone to like her. Caroline doesn’t want her leftover stuffed cabbage, and Noah won’t let her tuck him in at night. But Rose is a woman of action, and if she cannot inspire love, she will be content to exercise authority. When Noah continues to leave coins in her pockets like a carefree rich kid, she hatches a policy: Caroline can supplement her paltry salary with any change she finds in the laundry.
It’s a form of change that the musical is about, and it triggers a crisis. Caroline is humbled by Rose’s good intentions, but she can’t afford to refuse, even if it means taking “money from a baby.” The other type of change is no less heavy. The world is moving under Caroline’s tired feet. Her friend Dotty (Tamika Lawrence), also a housemaid, started going to night school in hopes of making a better life; her fun-loving teenage daughter, Emmie (the radiant Samantha Williams), develops a political conscience that Caroline believes will lead to disappointment, or worse. In Dallas, the president has just been shot. Then there is the statue of a Confederate soldier that stands downtown and on stage, at the start of Act I. By the time Act 2 begins, only his legs remain. The rest were dismantled under cover of night and thrown into the bayou.
Kushner grew up the son of a clarinetist in Lake Charles in the sixties; he dedicated “Caroline” to his family’s maid, Maudie Lee Davis. Noah is therefore a kind of avatar of Kushner’s childhood self, but, in this work steeped in autobiography, Kushner does something rare: he invites his curiosity for others to dislodge his own point of view. Carried away by Tesori’s music, which mixes klezmer, spirituals, ’60s pop, and half a dozen other genres to create an unstoppable American sound, we see the story simultaneously through hopeful eyes. of a child and through those jaded of an adult woman. Are their perspectives so different? Children and adults alike, in this room grappling with the burdens of reality, are granted magnificent flights of fantasy; both long for life to return to the way it was before. Still, there is an asymmetry: Caroline is a pillar in Noah’s world, while Noah can only dream of making a place for himself in Caroline’s. He aspires to claim the same right to his imagination as he has to his. Isn’t that what we all want: to feature in each other’s stories?
This question is also political. Kushner comically nails the heartfelt but obliging side of so much American Jewish liberalism in his description of Noah’s grandparents (Joy Hermalyn and Stuart Zagnit), who praise JFK as so much a “friend of people of color. “that he was a” friend of the Jew. Nice thought, but not quite the truth. At the Gellmans’ Hanukkah party, Emmie, who Caroline brought with her to help serve the latkes, sparks a debate on the nascent civil rights movement with Rose’s old-school socialist father (Chip Zien). Caroline is furious with her rebellious daughter and Emmie is enraged by Caroline’s gentleness. When will her mother dare to stand up for herself – and for his people?
When Caroline finally says what she thinks, she sings it, in an explosive air addressed to no one other than God; Clarke, a performer as powerful as you are likely to see, unleashes her character’s discontent and grief and brings the house down. Caroline is not who her daughter would like her to be. She is not who she wanted to be. But she is singularly herself, and, as Clarke shows us, that is enough.
Another musical on politics and motherhood under the pressure of capitalism is reviving at the Performing Garage of the Wooster Group: “The Mother” by Bertolt Brecht (directed by Elizabeth LeCompte). Brecht, who based this 1932 work on a novel by Maxim Gorky, wanted it to be a Lehrstück, or learn to play. “About 15,000 working class women in Berlin saw the play, which was a demonstration of the methods of illegal revolutionary struggle,” he later wrote. The Performing Garage contains about seventy-five people, who seemed, the night I attended the show, to be members of New York literature. The Marxist revolution may still be fomented on TikTok, but it seems safe to say that the downtown New York scene is not the insurgent platform for the masses that Brecht might have hoped for.
The mother of “The Mother” is Pelegea Vlasov (Kate Valk), an illiterate factory worker from pre-revolutionary Russia. Once introduced to Communist politics by her son, Pavel (Gareth Hobbs), she dedicated herself to the cause, packing pickles in radical leaflets to distribute to workers and bringing a printing press into her apartment. It’s not hard to grasp Brecht’s lessons: Workers are exploited, factory owners are greedy, union representatives are going to fuck everyone, and common men and women must unite. And there is another, more curious message: that a parent can be converted to their child’s beliefs by simple exposure. Inspired by a wide range of sources, including Slavoj Žižek’s YouTube videos, “Pee-wee’s Playhouse” and Radiolab, the group Wooster takes an explanatory approach to Brecht’s text, interrupting the action with friendly lectures on his theatrical methods ; this cerebral production pleasantly tickles the intellect while leaving the emotions intact. Brecht may have thought that one could work without the other, but no revolution has yet succeeded in separating the mind from the heart. ??