Tony Kushner’s Caroline, or Change
“We absolutely need our American brothers and sisters to realize that a great American city had a major blow,” Lake Charles Mayor Nic Hunter told NPR not a week after Hurricane Laura hit the city. “I am begging, I am pleading for Americans not to forget about Lake Charles.”
As a lifelong Louisianan, I regretfully admit to too often doing just that. Lake Charles geographically and culturally occupies that liminal space between Louisiana and Texas, soon, I fear, to be swallowed up by Houston’s megalopian sprawl. But I did my best to answer the mayor’s call to not forget: donating money, volunteering to hand out supplies to evacuees sheltering in New Orleans hotels, and, finally, exploring the city from afar. I read Stephanie Soileau’s debut, the new, Lake Charles–set short story collection Last One out Shut off the Lights. I listened to hometown musician Lucinda Williams’s “Lake Charles,” a bittersweet ballad to an ex-lover. And I simultaneously read and listened to the playwright Tony Kushner’s musical, Caroline, or Change.
First performed off-Broadway in 2003, and loosely based on the playwright’s experience growing up in Lake Charles, Kushner’s only musical narrates the relationship between Noah Gellman, an eight-year-old Jewish boy, and his family’s Black housekeeper, Caroline Thibodeaux, a nearly forty-year-old single mom of four.
Caroline—a character based on the Kushner family’s former maid, Maudie Lee Davis—is sad, bitter. “Sorry you drinking misery tea,” her best friend, Dotty, commiserates, “Sorry your life ain’t what it should be.” Caroline spends her days in the Gellman’s basement—washing, ironing, listening to the radio—accompanied only by the appliances of her trade. This being a musical, Caroline sings, and the appliances sing back. “Nothing ever happen underground in Louisiana,” she laments, “Cause they ain’t no underground in Louisiana / There is only underwater.”
“Doin’ laundry, full of woe,” the radio rues, “’Neath the Gulf of Mexico.” The dryer chimes in: “The pit of your abasement / Looks a bit like this old basement.”
The year is 1963. Caroline dreams of kissing Nat King Cole. She aspires to pay her rent on time, to provide her children with toys and comic books—all those fun, frivolous things that Noah expects and enjoys. She worries about her son Larry, off in Vietnam. Caroline longs for change—but, she observes, “Nothing ever changes underground in Louisiana.”
Unable to connect with his brokenhearted, widowed father and unfamiliar stepmother, Noah clings to Caroline. The two bond over the mothers they both lost to lung cancer. Ironically, he lights the daily cigarette Caroline allows herself. She begrudges the kid’s company. But for Noah, “Caroline is king / And Caroline is queen / And Caroline is stronger than my dad.”
Change gonna come, as Sam Cooke promised the following year. And it comes for Caroline. An assassin slays President Kennedy just four hundred miles from Lake Charles. Unknown assailants topple the city’s courthouse Confederate statue under cover of night, wrap his decapitated body in the Stars and Bars, and toss him in the bayou. The segregated public bus that Caroline rides to and from work sings a tale of woe in a “terrible voice of apocalypse,” according to Kushner’s show notes, warning of changes that ring eerily familiar post-Hurricane Laura: “Deluge flood ice water rise / Tear your hair your clothes your eyes. / Sister shed / Tears of blood. / The Earth has bled! / Now come the flood.”
The Gellmans—white, comfy middle-class—are unfazed by the world’s tumult, though they aren’t so ignorant as to not recognize Caroline’s plight. Noah’s stepmother tells her to keep the loose coins the boy forgets in his pants pockets. She hesitates at first, embarrassed by Rose Gellman’s tepid display of support. But as nickels, dimes, and quarters pile up in the bleach cap, and Noah mislays a $20 bill—Hanukkah gelt from Grandpa Gellman—Caroline embraces the literal and figurative change that has come her way. “All changes come from small changes,” the radio sings.
Now she can afford finally to fix her son Jackie’s cavities, to send a care package to Larry, to buy Legos for little Joe. But though Noah was happy to part with his spare change, he’s not about to surrender the biggest bill he’s ever held, and he demands its return. Caroline counters: “You left that money in your clothes, / Easy comes and easy goes.” Their once fragile friendship descends into enmity and spiteful words.
When Caroline reluctantly but voluntarily returns to work for the sake of her family, she finds a contrite and changed Noah. Will we ever be friends, he asks. “Someday we’ll talk again,” she responds. “But they’s things we’ll never say. / That sorrow deep inside you, / It’s inside me too, / And it never go away. / You be ok.”
Caroline, or Change confronts, better and more beautifully than most Louisiana stories, issues of race and poverty, the failures of the past, and the seeming hopelessness of the future. Kushner invites us to embrace change, which is as constant as the cycles of the moon, as unbearable as the loss of a lover, especially on the state’s ever-shifting silty soil. Before we can rebuild a relationship (or remake a devastated city), the musical emphasizes, we must first change ourselves.
Rien Fertel recently wrapped up work on his next book, the story of Louisiana’s fraught and often ferocious relationship with its state bird, the brown pelican.