When the "Coloreds Only" sign disappeared from a water fountain at the train station in Tony Kushner's hometown of Lake Charles, La., one day in the early 1960s, it was a sign of the dawning civil rights movement, which had emerged elsewhere in the South but only subtly in Lake Charles.
In Kushner's liberal Jewish home, relatives spoke excitedly of the changes while an African American maid, Maudie, washed and ironed all day in the hot basement. In her starched white uniform, she toiled as black domestics had done for generations of white families in Lake Charles.
The Pulitzer Prize-winning Kushner drew on those memories to create his potent but unsentimental new musical, "Caroline, or Change," now at the Ahmanson Theatre. With book and lyrics by Kushner and music by Jeanine Tesori, the piece recounts a time when "nothing much ever seemed to happen, yet something unforeseen was out there in the distance, having to do with race," Kushner said.
The semi-autobiographical story revolves around Jewish 9-year-old Noah and his dour family maid, Caroline (Tonya Pinkins), who labors in the basement as the world outside transforms.
The change in the title not only refers to the civil rights movement but to the change Noah carelessly leaves in his pockets, which his stepmother urges Caroline to keep to teach the boy a lesson. It is this pocket change (actually $20 in Chanukah gelt) that inevitably fractures the relationship between Noah and Caroline, mirroring the era's economic and political concerns.
The crisis also serves as a parable of black Jewish relations: "The civil rights movement, a coalition of blacks and Jews, produced immensely significant, progressive changes in American society," Kushner, 48, said from his Manhattan home. "But I feel both blacks and Jews are responsible for the [acrimonious] way in which our two groups parted. That's why the play has no villains, just characters trying to get by and to be just," he added. "The piece addresses the immense possibility for misunderstanding on both sides; the powerful societal forces of race and money; and how even good intentions can sometimes lead to unfortunate consequences -- as the play says, 'consequences unforeseen.'"
Kushner's work has long focused on powerful societal forces, and consequences unforeseen. His epic plays explore the anxiety of turbulent change: the AIDS epidemic in "Angels in America," for example, or the threat of terrorism in "Homebody/Kabul."
If "Caroline" spotlights race relations, it's been called the "brooding person's 'Hairspray'" -- alluding to the perky Broadway musical about integration in which blacks and whites only have to dance together to fix societal ills. Kushner's piece is a grittier look at the era and, generally, how personal and political change intersect.
"Sometimes people with terrible personal problems can truly be saved by a powerful social movement and, sometimes, movements can't quite do that, as in the case of Caroline," he said. "External forces such as racism and poverty pull too hard in the opposite direction, as do internal pressures such as depression."
It's the kind of conflict Kushner believes he saw in Maudie, to whom the musical is dedicated, and whose implacable temperament fascinated him as a boy. Other African American housekeepers put on happy faces, which Kushner suspected masked less favorable feelings, but not Maudie.
"She was much tougher and less friendly than the other maids," he said.
Like the fictional Noah, young Tony regularly left coins in his pockets, which the housekeeper found in the laundry; the habit appalled his mother, who had grown up on welfare, and eventually inspired "Caroline."
Also like Noah, the playwright ultimately lost his mother to cancer; as she shuttled back and forth to New York for treatment, it was Maudie who cared for the three Kushner children and drove them to school. Even so, the author recalled, "She was not interested in becoming our surrogate mommy. She would not have felt that was appropriate."
The musical, accordingly, dismisses the myth of the always-nurturing domestic: "It's like, 'Hey, this woman is raising this white boy and she's not happy about it," said Pinkins, who received a Tony nomination for "Caroline." "She's not in love with her white family. It's one of those truths people are in denial about, but which [Kushner] confronts head on."
The author, for his part, views the story as cautiously hopeful: "It's about the world changing, not in a snap but slowly," he said.
For tickets to "Caroline," which runs through Dec. 26, call (213) 628-2772 or visit www.taperahmanson.com.