Constant Change

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Constant Change
This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk.

Birmingham, Alabama was perhaps the most segregated city in America during the 1950's and 60's. In the year 1963 alone, hundreds of protesters were jailed, Dr. Martin Luther King was held in solitary confinement for three days, and four young girls were killed when the Ku Klux Klan bombed the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church.

One of the girls killed that day was 11 year-old Denise McNair--who happened to be a friend of a nine-year old resident of Birmingham named Condoleezza Rice. That Dr. Rice, who was born and raised in this cauldron of the civil rights movement, would grow up to be the future Secretary of State says a great deal about this country and the way in which things can change.

As if anticipating Rice's ascension to one of America's highest political positions, two Southern California theaters are currently presenting musical dramas about strong, black woman from the deep south.

The first of these, titled Constant Star, is a biographical work about the life of Ida B. Wells, a black woman who was a champion of women's suffrage and a cofounder of the NAACP.

Written and directed by Tazewell Thompson, Constant Star uses five actresses to portray Wells. This seems to have been done in an attempt to make the largely anecdotal work seem more dynamic; but in fact, all it does is blur the focus of the play.

Certainly, the contradictory elements of Ida B. Wells' personality are interesting to explore (like Rice, she also had a soft spot for Republicans as she was a vigorous supporter of Herbert Hoover's presidential campaign); but the fractured narrative does not play the parts of her character against each other--so ultimately, it seems like just a device so that the songs can be sung in five part harmony. The singing of classic spirituals is the best part of Constant Star, as the actresses all have good voices; but these moving hymns only serve to show how unpersuasive the dramatic text of the play is.

In contrast to Constant Star, the Tony-winning musical Caroline, or Change (currently running at the Ahmanson) features an engaging and often poetic libretto by playwright Tony Kushner, while the original music by Jeanine Tesori often fails to impress.

Caroline, or Change is set in Louisiana in the same year as the Birmingham events--but it focuses on the life of a fictional character: a strong, black housekeeper named Caroline. Caroline (played by Tonya Pinkins) is a single mother who spends her days washing clothes in a middle class, Jewish family's basement.

The central relationship of the show is between Caroline and the family's young boy, Noah. Noah is in awe of Caroline and he looks forward to coming home from school each day to hang out with her as she does battle with the musically anthropomorphic washer and dryer. But Noah has a bad habit of leaving loose change in his pockets, and their friendly relationship is challenged when his step mother tells Caroline she can keep any of the coins (or bills) that she finds in the wash.

This conflict is what propels the musical, but really Caroline, or Change is not a plot-driven show. Kushner's book and lyrics focus more on the inner conflicts of each character, which give the musical a refreshingly introspective feel. But it is this same quality that makes the work seem fragmented. Only once, during the excellent Act Two dinner scene, do the music and drama seem integrated in a way that makes you forget you're watching a sung-through musical. Despite its interesting elements, the parts don't always add up to a coherent and satisfying whole.

Caroline, or Changeis a complex, contradictory work--which can be frustrating at times for those wanting a nice, polished piece of musical theater. But really, a musical that tries to honestly deal with race in this country probably should be a bit confusing. At a time when a black woman from Birmingham is the star of a anti-affirmative action administration--how could it be otherwise?

Caroline, or Change runs through December 26th at the Ahmanson Theatre. Constant Star closes this Sunday at the Laguna Playhouse.

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.