The basement beat

Special to The Times

In the new musical "Caroline, or Change" at the Public Theater, the depressing isolation of a black maid working in a Louisiana basement is broken by the songs of her constant "companions." The washing machine comes to life in the person of a voluptuously swathed woman. The thumping dryer emerges as a sultry, menacing cigar-smoking dandy. The radio morphs into a Supremes-style girl group.

Upstairs is the discordant Southern Jewish household of the Gellmans. It's 1963, and the air is thick with tension. But the brutal confrontation about to happen is not with the employers of the unhappy maid, Caroline, but with their son, 8-year-old Noah.

Such an unexpected mix of the mundane with the fantastical comes, perhaps less unexpectedly, from playwright Tony Kushner. After all, it was in his epic "Angels in America" (now an HBO miniseries beginning Dec. 7) that an angel crashed through the drab apartment of an AIDS patient. More surprising is that "Caroline, or Change," which opens next Sunday, comes in musical form -- Kushner's first, in fact.

His collaborator on this most experimental of musicals is Jeanine Tesori, the composer of the thoroughly mainstream Broadway hit "Thoroughly Modern Millie."

"Tony's language is extremely musical," says Tesori, who was called on to write a show that is almost completely sung through. "We discovered there were certain places where these characters lose melody, lose song. Only when the characters seemed most lost and upset did we have them speak."

As to the conceit of anthropomorphizing Caroline's inanimate world -- there is even a singing moon and bus -- the composer says that they are simply reflections of the maid's character. "It's not magic realism," she says. "Out of the loneliness and repetition of her tasks, these voices in her head take on an existence. These were parts of her she couldn't express herself."

Tesori admits that she was initially overwhelmed by the scope of the project when Kushner broached it with her three-and-a-half years ago. The play was originally commissioned by the San Francisco Opera in 1997. Kushner completed the libretto, but because of scheduling conflicts, then-composer Bobby McFerrin never set it to music.Kushner later turned to Tesori, because he had admired her work on "Violet," a 1994 musical about a badly scarred Southern woman in search of a miracle cure.

The collaboration has yielded Kushner's most "personally intimate" work, says George C. Wolfe, who is directing "Caroline, or Change" and who also guided Kushner's "Angels in America" to Broadway. "We first read 'Caroline' as a play, not a musical, at the Public," Wolfe recalls. "And it works as a play -- but it works better as a musical event. The music fuses with Tony's elegant, poetic and cerebral language to make the play soar in a very intense way."

Playwright's inspiration

Despite the leavening device of fantasy, the story is emotionally wrenching. It is chiefly focused on the charged relationship between the embittered Caroline and Noah, who idolizes her despite her coolness to him. Their relationship evolves against a backdrop that is both domestic and political: The boy is coming to terms with the death of his mother and his father's remarriage while Caroline deals with a rebellious daughter whose activism is sparked by the civil rights movement.

Kushner himself was raised by a black maid in Lake Charles, La., in the 1960s. He is hesitant to talk about the autobiographical elements in the musical, mostly to protect the privacy of the woman on whom Caroline is modeled. (The playwright nervously vetted the script with the now-retired maid and plans to bring her to New York to see the show.) "It isn't autobiography," says Kushner, whose play "Homebody/Kabul" recently ended its run at the Mark Taper Forum. "My mother didn't die when I was 8, thank God, and the maid, unlike Caroline, wasn't divorced. But her life in many ways resembles Caroline and my relationship with her."

The idea was forming, the playwright says, many years before his groundbreaking "Angels." It first crystallized in the mid-'70s when Kushner, then in his 20s and a graduate student at New York University, was beginning to think of himself as a playwright. He'd just studied the searing political works of the communist German writer Bertolt Brecht and been further galvanized by an acclaimed revival of the Brecht-Kurt Weill musical "The Threepenny Opera" at Lincoln Center.

The anger of class inequity in Brecht's plays is echoed in "Caroline." In the musical, she and Noah clash over money, the "Hanukkah gelt" -- a traditional gift of money -- that the boy is given by his grandfather. The scene is an invention, Kushner says, but even as a child he was aware of the economic disparity in his household and the "harder, darker and complicated truths" that are the driving forces in the play.

"I didn't want audiences to arrive at this play thinking that here is yet another story about a black maid and a little boy and a mother-son relationship," the playwright says. "It's not sentimental. This is about economics." Such forces still shape household relationships, as evidenced by the number of Americans who employ immigrant housekeepers and nannies. "There are hidden truths in these relationships," he says.

Caroline's long-simmering anger reaches full boil within this unhappy domestic construct, but it is exacerbated by events outside of it. The bus sings a dirge for slain President John F. Kennedy, and the air is humid with violence. Not long before, there was the bombing of the Birmingham church and the assassination of Medgar Evers. Indeed the Gellmans' hot basement is a microcosm of sorts for the long historical conundrum of black servitude to white America.

Composer Tesori took her cue for the music from this context, finding in the thump of the dryer or Caroline's rhythmic ironing the particular beat of women whose lives are built on toil. The rhythms of slaves' field songs are very much a part of Caroline's vocabulary, she says, and actress Tonya Pinkins (who won a Tony for "Jelly's Last Jam" in 1992) has the voice to express that strength as well as contemporary fragility. "She sings from the earth up. She has the ground on her side," Tesori says.

Attention is paid

Pinkins, for her part, sees the play as an archetypal tribute to those who, like her own grandmother, spent their lives taking care of the children and households of others. "Tony has done for the Negro maid what [Arthur] Miller did for the salesman," Pinkins says. "Life couldn't go on without these women." The price, she suggests, has been steep, particularly for Caroline, who knows that God gave her an arm for more than just ironing but who is hard-pressed to discover just what that something might be. "This is a woman who just doesn't know how to face the future."

While other African Americans in Caroline's orbit are galvanized, even empowered, by the struggle for civil rights, the maid herself feels admonished by them, immobilized by her anger. Caroline is profoundly affected by the tumultuous political events, but, Kushner says, "she can't access that energy, and that energy can't get at her. It points to how incredibly painful change is and how differently it arrives within different people. All this revolutionary change can't lift all boats. And to me that's the central tragedy of the play."

Forced to confront and negotiate with her rage, Caroline chooses a bittersweet compromise. Kushner says she lands at an emotional place where she can do no harm, but she concedes the power her anger could have fueled. After the anger is burned away, what is left is a certain stillness and calm -- and the ashes of her dreams.

Those dreams are now the province of her children, particularly Emmie, her eldest daughter, who, unlike her mother, has been able to channel her frustrations with the status quo into a fierce political activism.

While the sacrifice of mothers for their children is a staple of domestic drama, Kushner is adamant that the bittersweet denouement shouldn't be seen as palliative. "I don't think you can focus on the happy consequences of Caroline's sacrifice," he says. "Maybe it's necessary, but we shouldn't be too complacent about asking parents to sacrifice for their children. And as a society, we are complacent; we routinely announce that is what we expect. And the vast majority of that falls on poor people and women. We ask them to give up their joy, and that's wrong. In some cases, it's calamitous."

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