Standin’ there 100 year, now that statue he just disappear.
Things change everywhere, even here.
“Dotty and Caroline” from Caroline, or Change
“It baffles me how we’ve gotten to a moment in American history where it’s up for discussion whether or not Nazis are evil,” says Laura Hope, sounding truly bewildered over the violence that erupted in Charlottesville, Va., last weekend after the city’s planned removal of a statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee was protested by torch-wielding white supremacists.
Hope chairs the Department of Theatre Arts and Dance at Loyola University in New Orleans, where earlier this year city officials methodically removed four Confederate monuments, including a statue of Lee that had loomed prominently over the city since 1884. The removals in New Orleans took place under heavy police protection and occurred largely without incident, despite heightened tensions caused by protesters trucked in from out of state who waved Confederate flags, brandished Nazi insignias, and openly carried firearms in public spaces.
After those same tensions boiled over in Charlottesville, public officials and residents in a growing list of cities across the country started calling for the monuments in their own towns to come down. A crowd of fed-up locals in Durham, N.C., took a do-it-yourself approach to monument removal just two days after the conflict in Charlottesville, toppling a Confederate statue outside the old county courthouse with nothing but a length of yellow cargo strap and the strength of their own convictions.
That scene in Durham bore more than a passing resemblance to a minor storyline that runs through Tony Kushner and Jeanine Tesori’s 2004 musical Caroline, or Change, which Hope is slated to direct in a New Orleans-area production this fall, Oct. 27-Nov. 5, in a collaboration between Loyola University and the Jefferson Performing Arts Society (JPAS). The show, inspired by Kushner’s Louisiana upbringing, is set in Lake Charles, La., during the heat of the Civil Rights Movement. The plot centers on the uneasy relationship between a Jewish family and their black maid, Caroline, but the era of change is emphasized by a number of background events: the assassination of President Kennedy, the non-violent protests led by Martin Luther King Jr., and—in a particularly timely subplot—the destruction of a courthouse Confederate statue by teenagers in the small Southern town.
In the song “Dotty and Caroline,” it’s Dotty who first relays the news to her friend, telling Caroline:
That old copper statue by the courthouse downtown
Honoring the brave Confederate soldier,
The South’s defender, the Civil War,
Ain’t there no more, it ain’t there no more.
Last evenin’ somebody heist the hateful thing,
Unscrewed it, carried it away.
For Hope, the prescience of Kushner’s lyrics is unsurprising.
“I’ve always thought that Tony Kushner is part writer, part seer,” she said. “I swear, his plays are always ostensibly about fairly recent history, but they always end up being a crystal ball for what comes next.”
Since moving to New Orleans more than 10 years ago, Hope has been eager to stage Caroline, or Change, which she calls one of Kushner’s most underrated works (the playwright has often called it his own favorite). She’s interested in shows that “speak to what’s on the mind of the local community” and believes that Caroline, or Change offers a way for people in Louisiana to grapple with both the past and the present as the region once again confronts sweeping forces of social change. The opportunity to partner with JPAS on the production came last year, before the controversy over the Confederate monuments had really gained momentum, but it’s clear that raised consciousness around the issue will inform the work for artists and audiences.
“Kushner inserted this little tiny subplot about what the legacy of those monuments means, and what the mythologizing of the Old South means, and how that has affected relations between people in our country, and suddenly that particular topic is a flashpoint,” said Hope. “A year ago, for many people, that aspect of the musical would wash right over them. There’s no way that’s going to happen now.”
While the monuments are currently the center of attention, Hope points out that those statues are just symbols of major fault lines among Americans. She admires Kushner’s and Tesori’s musical most for the way it encompasses multiple personal perspectives across racial, cultural, and generational lines.
While the main storyline is Caroline’s relationship with 8-year-old Noah Gellman, who just lost his lost mother to cancer and is seeking a maternal figure—a role that Caroline can’t bring herself to fill—the show also examines the complicated dynamic between Noah’s dad and new stepmom, a union both Noah and Caroline must learn to navigate. Additionally, there’s Caroline’s teenage daughter, Emmie, who is swept up in the excitement of the Civil Rights Movement, and Noah’s grandfather, a Wobblie from New York who denounces “this nonsense about non-violence,” telling Emmie that recent Jewish history should prove that “non-violence will get you burned.”
“I think one of the brilliant aspects of this play is that everybody’s positions are complicated and compromised,” said Hope, her voice rising. “There’s something in that scene that’s so brilliant, their inability to see eye to eye. Even though they come from populations that have experienced trauma, it’s not the same trauma. It’s horrific trauma, but it’s very specific for each individual. There’s no one-size-fits all approach that seems to be working.”
In that respect, the musical addresses a range of responses to social change and conflict, from peaceful protest to violence to the stasis that comes from being caught in the middle and fearing the future.
While people of a certain age may still feel a visceral connection to events like the Holocaust and the Civil Rights Movement, Hope sees more and more young people passing through her classrooms that belong to a generation who see those events as ancient history and are energized about new struggles. They’re not really new, of course, and theatre, Hope believes can be a way to engage both young artists and audiences who lack perspective about the South, its history, and the way its legacy lives on today.
“The opportunity in this show is for our students to learn more about what the Nazis really mean from the Jewish perspective, to learn what Jim Crow and the Civil Rights era mean from an African-American perspective, and to have it be put before you in flesh and blood, not in the abstract,” she explained.
In light of recent events, it might be tempting to assign more significance to the brief appearance of the Confederate monument in Caroline, or Change than it deserves. Perhaps the violence in Charlottesville was an anomaly. After all, the monuments in New Orleans came down peacefully, despite the charged atmosphere. The crowd in Durham seemed to have faced no resistance at all when they yanked the statue from its perch (though there have been arrests); and a day later the people of Baltimore woke up to learn that monuments in their city had been removed overnight.
But as the rhetoric heats up and the talk leads to more protests, and the protests lead to the threat of more violence, it’s more essential than ever to understand why those monuments must come down and why people like Emmie in Caroline, or Change—not to mention the real-life men and women who stood up to the white supremacists in Charlottesville—are committed to the brave act of seeing them fall, even in the face of fierce opposition.
“As small a subplot as it is, the fate of that monument—what really happened to it, who did it, and why—is the last thing you hear before you leave the theatre,” Hope points out. “And I think that last epilogue that Emmie sings, about what that statue means to her and how it makes her feel—that’s really something to hear before you walk out into the night.”