Minerva Theatre, Chichester – until 3 June 2017
Here’s a pocket musical with huge themes, a blues opera of historic seriousness but with a singing washing-machine in a bubbled mini dress. A tiny domestic upheaval opens up deep sorrow and the sharpest of human and civil rights: this intimate epic by Tony Kushner, with Jeanine Tesori’s music, wears far better than his Angels in America which occupied eight hours last week at the National.
There is apparent whimsy – the tumble-drier sings too, only more baritone and Satanic, and the radio is three foxy Supreme-alikes with aerials on their heads and a succession of fabulously tight costumes – but also real darkness. Its ending, balanced between revolution and resignation as Afro-American generations move on, is the first page of modern America. To see it with the fresh memory of the Obama White House farewells is moving.
On the face of it the story is tiny. Caroline – the redoubtable, powerful Sharon D.Clarke – is a maid, doing laundry in the hot humid Louisiana basement of a fractured family – ‘Sixteen feet down and feeling low, talkin’ to the washer and the radio!”. She has three children at home – including the rebellious, stunningly fiercely sung Emmie (Abiona Omonua) and can barely meet the rent and food. The father (Alex Gaumond) is a vague clarinettist, still grieving his dead first wife and disconnected from his 8-year-old Noah: a stunning little Daniel Luniko the night I went. He has remarried the New-York Jewish Rose (Lauren Ward) . She’s homesick for the Hudson river, and Noah dislikes her.
So the lad spends his time hanging out in the basement with the grudging, grumpy Caroline, sometimes allowed to light her one cigarette of the day for her. He has a habit of leaving his loose change in his pants pocket, and she saves it for him in the bleach cup. Until Rose, with a glorious mean-white-madam tactlessness probably all too familiar to many a Filipina here today, decides that it would both teach Noah a good Jewish lesson in the value of money and supplement the low wages she pays Caroline, if she tells the maid she can keep any coins she finds.
This system, and Caroline’s dignity, throw the whole fragile, artificial equilibrium of racism and inequality into a personal and political crisis. For it is 1963: Kennedy is dead, Luther King on the march, black America impatient. The frogs chirp at night in the damp, explosive heat: young rebels have topped the Confederate Soldier’s “Defender of the South” statue .
Under Michael Longhurst’s direction and Nigel Lilley’s musical leadership (its a substantial little orchestra) the almost through-composed score carries this domestic miniature into the huge theme of coming change: there are great blasts of blues and moments of mischievous exuberance : Emmie and two more young children pull out a stunning fantasy, assisted by Angela Caesar flying overhead as the Moon. There are moments mournful, demonic, whimsical, passionate, comic , threatening.
The gulf grows politically between the middle-aged maid- solid, enduring, unhappy and conflicted – and her fiery daughter and equally ambitious friend Dotty (“Some folks go to school at night, some folks march for civil rights!”). Another gulf is opening too, in a Hannukah scene both vigorously funny and dangerously threatening: Rose and her visiting New York parents fail to quench her firebrand grandfather (Teddy Kempner), a 1930’s Communist who thinks the negroes should give up this “non-violence nonsense” and get on with smashing capitalism for all the workers.
Yet the big themes all feed in to one point: the solid, the sorrowful, the melodious, the banked-fire unhappiness of Caroline herself, trapped in a cleft of history. The political is the personal, wonderfully so.