After getting passed over for Tony awards for best musical, book, and score, Caroline, or Change‘s Broadway days may be numbered, but I can’t stop thinking about Tony Kushner’s exchange with Hedy Weiss, the critic who called him “a self-loathing Jew.” Kushner understandably took umbrage; calling someone a self-hating Jew is, like terrorist or Uncle Tom, a full stop, a label meant to stifle further critical conversation about the play or the viewer’s reactions. The Chicago Reader passed off Weiss’ insult as a matter of politics, a displaced riposte in an ongoing argument with Kushner about the Middle East.
It’s a shame Weiss tossed off the epithet in her Tony-preview capsule review, because, when Kushner wrote a letter to her editors and Weiss took the time to explain herself, she offered some insightful observations:
In watching Caroline, I saw one culture (African-American), portrayed as being totally buoyed and buttressed by its music, by its way of moving, by its way of interacting within a family and by its sense of pride in the face of adversity. And then I saw another (the Jews, with the sole exception, perhaps, of the Socialist grandfather), as more than palpably ill-at-ease with themselves, with their music, with their choices.
Kushner complained that “there is not a single line of text to corroborate her charge,” but musical theater is more than text, and this production of Caroline, held together by director George C. Wolfe’s swift, inventive staging, yields supporting evidence in harmony and gesture. In January, before Caroline‘s transfer to Broadway, I left the Public Theater dazzled by the soulful singing appliances, but wondering what klezmer music had to do with the assimilated Gellmans of Louisiana, and why 9-year-old Noah exhibited such an insensitivity to rhythm when he dances with the children of his family’s black maid. This was rehearsed awkwardness, not a failing of actor Harrison Chad. Noah’s body language communicated a fundamental discomfort with himself and an anger at his dysfunctional family (empty widowed father, hopeless Northern stepmother, grandparents with cartoonish old-country manners). For Noah and for theatergoers, the Gellman family defines the Jewish universe. And I could easily imagine him growing into someone like Louis Ironson, the self-conscious to the point of self-flagellating gay intellectual of Kushner’s Angels in America. Louis is Jewish and full of self-loathing, which is not necessarily the same as being a self-hating Jew; this may be what Weiss is getting at.