Angels in a Changed America

From HBO to Off-Broadway: Tony Kushner's Epic Theater of Identity

In a sense, Caroline is Kushner's attempt to queer Angels by putting cash back into thinking about race and gender. After all, money is a major signifier of status, and fear of falling even further is what keeps stigmatized people from uniting against the order that oppresses them. It stops white women from identifying with black men, and prevents gay gents from relating to butch dykes and trannies. In challenging sexist assumptions on the left, identity politics has obscured the significance of cash. Now it's time to make the analysis whole, and Caroline announces that change. "The '80s and '90s were about an illusion of abundance," says Wolfe. "But more people are like Caroline today. And $30 a week ain't enough."

Caroline departs from the domain of Angels in another important respect. All the men in this musical are absent, archaic, or too depressed to communicate. This is a play about women and children, and that creates another layer of complexity, reflected in Tesori's propulsive score, which includes music for the washing machine and radio in the basement that is Caroline's world. In this character, Tesori sees many issues she tackled in women's studies: "slicing off parts of yourself, not wanting to take up much space, living in an emotional basement with four walls around you at all times.

"This story could have been Medea," Tesori says, "but it's not. It's about a woman who understands that there's nowhere to deposit her talent and intellect. She kills them off so she can advocate for the going-forward of her children." As the daughter of Sicilian immigrants—another not-quite-white group in America—Tesori found much to connect with in Caroline's struggle. "The idea of moving beyond the generation before you produced a lot of rancor and misplaced aggression in immigrant households. I understand that legacy."

The Angel has eight vaginas and the means to use them, even on the dying gay man she transforms into a prophet.
photo: Anna Barry-Jester
The Angel has eight vaginas and the means to use them, even on the dying gay man she transforms into a prophet.

Two sorta white folks collaborate to create a poor black woman. A black director depicts the ways of Southern Jews. The director and author are gay—and if you listen closely you'll find evidence that the eight-year-old protagonist of this play will grow up to be that way. These permutations speak to a new identity politics of "subtlety, sophistication, and complexity that reflects the world we're experiencing now," to quote Kushner. This resonance with the present makes Caroline, which presumes to be a memory play, seem oddly more contemporary than Angels. After 9-11, America is closer to the unfathomable feelings that the JFK assassination unleashed. "We're at the same point now," Wolfe maintains, "and war as a tactic of heroics has only intensified the fragility and vulnerability."

What does this have to do with Walter Benjamin? Everything, Kushner insists. "Caroline is a woman who loses her mobility. She can't stop grieving over losses, and, like Benjamin's angel, her face is turned to the past. She wants to go back, but the terrible lesson of history is that she can't." Her brazen teenage daughter who won't take shit from white folks propels the play—and the world—forward. Violence, struggle, and backlash will follow, but she sees only the world as it is and must not be. She will be fabulous.

All this talk about the angel of history has made me think about my first reaction to the Twin Towers falling down. Unable to process this terrible event, I was exhilarated. I felt weirdly giddy in the face of something so unimaginable and uncontrollable. Before horror set in, there was a primal pleasure at the storm of change. "Ah," Kushner says softly, almost reverently, "the apocalypse."

Research: Matthew Phillp

Related Article:
Michael Feingold's review of Tony Kushner and Jeanine Tesori's Caroline, or Change

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