Papa Roberto dabbles in magic, to the delight of his kids, Tito and Milagro. His most treasured father-and-son moments are spent building and flying kites – until Papa goes off to work and never returns. How Tito reacts to his dad’s sudden deportation to Mexico is the heart of The Magic Kite, now in its world premiere production at ImaginOn. Children’s Theatre of Charlotte commissioned the new work by José Cruz González because artistic director Adam Burke was moved by artist-activist Rosalia Torres-Weiner’s paintings and her Papalote Project here in town.
At the same time that this project gives children of deported parents the opportunity to vent some of their anguish through artistic expression, classmates, teachers and parents become more aware that families fractured by deportation are living right here in Charlotte. Staging this new play at the Wells Fargo Playhouse is a great way to extend that worthy mission to an even wider audience.
González, whose adaptation of Tomás and the Library Lady was staged at the same venue five years ago, seems a bit rushed here when establishing the kite and magic strands of his plot at the beginning and when he ties them together at the end. There’s plenty going on in just over 45 minutes as Burke directs the four members of the Children’s Theatre Resident Touring Company, since each of the performers communicates with us through at least one puppet – and a few sprinklings of Spanish.
Although Mark Sutton’s puppet designs have a nice folksy quality to them, narrowing our attention is a bit challenging with Torres-Weiner’s paintings flanking the stage while we jump back and forth from the magic scenes to the kite scenes. Scott Miller presides over these early scenes warmly and authoritatively as Papa with officious, worried support from Veda Covington as Mama Esperanza. It turns out that it’s really important for Roberto to get his taillight fixed.
When Papa gets picked up and deported, the weight of the story falls upon Tito, and Rahsheem Shabazz moved me in making Tito’s transition from awestruck child to the little man of the house. Leslie Ann Giles seems shortchanged at first, drawing the role of littler Milagro, but she soon gets her hands on a couple of other puppets. The most significant of these is Tito’s school chum Jamal, aggrieved by the loss of his mother, but Giles also gets the choicest cameo as the pet cat.
As often happens in children’s literature, wounds and losses that two kids have in common help in bridging their differences and cementing their friendship. González poignantly employs magical realism when Tito takes his family skyward on his kite, journeying to Mexico where they can be reunited with Papa. But an invisible barrier prevents them from crossing the border, so Tito and his family can see his beloved Papa, but they cannot join him.
At such fantastical moments, puppets can facilitate wonders. It’s just the aftermath that González bungles, loosening his grip on the tiller as we sail toward a consoling affirmation. I’m reminded of my teaching days, when I’d notice the class bell sneaking up on me. I’d rush through – or even skip over – the crucial ending of my lesson to assign the homework before the students rushed out.
Pretty much the same thing happens here as González tells us that more kites fly upwards after Tito’s sadly lands. We just don’t get a satisfying account of how that happens or what it means. The Magic Kite could easily unfold all its potential magic if González could add 10-15 minutes to it. Meanwhile, it was very useful to have Torres-Weiner hanging around after last Sunday’s matinee to answer kids’ questions in the talkback. They asked some really good ones.
I’ve seen over 200 productions by Children’s Theatre of Charlotte since I began covering the local scene in 1987, but only a handful have been as emotionally powerful as Danny, King of the Basement, now at the Wells Fargo Playhouse through Sunday. Grim realities pursue Danny Carter and his mom, Louise, who are fleeing from her latest bad decision when we first see them, an abusive boyfriend. That makes eight moves in the last two years, according to Danny, who keeps a more diligent count than Mom.
Danny’s disintegrating confidence in his mom and the wandering, often homeless nature of his life combine to push him into a world of fantasy – where he’s perpetually undercover as a juvenile spy, always an outsider looking in, always preparing for the next hasty getaway. So much always seems to be hanging by a thin thread in Canadian playwright David S. Craig’s penetrating script. To get their crummy new basement apartment, Louise has lied to the new landlady, pretending to be single and childless.
It’s only by speaking with Penny, the landlady’s daughter, that Danny discovers the deception. We can understand Danny’s wariness about his mom’s landing a job and not foolishly spending the little money that they have, since we’re a bit skeptical ourselves. While Danny remains uncertain about whether his mom will be able to make next month’s rent, his situation becomes more anguished because he’s actually making friends with Penny and another new neighbor, Angelo.
These other kids also have their woes. Angelo can’t seem to please his dad, whose presence is signaled by a lion’s roar that occasionally emanates from behind the entryway to his apartment. Dad might respect Angelo more once he scores his first hockey goal, but where is the confidence needed to score that goal going to come from?
Penny seems to be confident and affluent enough, but her parents are divorced and her dad is delinquent with support payments, spooking the cashflow. When Mom and Dad bicker over money, they do it through Penny, who carries two cell phones to field their calls. At one point, when she has both combatants on the line, Penny wraps the two phones together and drops them in a trashcan so they can duke it out.
Craig finds an even funnier way to defuse the seriousness of Angelo’s problems, as Danny and Penny perform a mock brain surgery that removes the bad thoughts ruining his self-confidence. Danny carries a shopping cart filled with carefully curated junk that becomes an eccentric toy chest that beautifully serves the kids’ pretend games.
The camaraderie cemented by this rollicking surgery unravels when Danny goes to school with his new chums. Instead of dutifully reading when his teacher calls on him, Danny cuts up and improvises his own story, earning himself a swift trip to the principal’s office. The smokescreen may bamboozle the new teacher, but Angelo and Penny see through it instantly – the collateral damage of Danny’s unsettled ramblings is a lingering illiteracy. It will be cataclysmic when Danny’s new chums call him out on it.
Beneath all of his spymaster tale-spinner façade, Danny is deeply ashamed – of his mom and of himself. He prides himself in being able to make friends, even best friends, in the space of a day. Yet Danny has moved around so much that he has never truly realized that the friends he makes can be a support system. That’s the deeply moving aha moment we witness here.
The only parent or teacher we actually see onstage here is Danny’s mom, but she is so flawed, so prone to unwise decisions and failure, that we’re apt to see her as under Danny’s care rather than the other way around. It’s a world of children we’re seeing, with adult intrusions but hardly any adult perspective or authority. With adults portraying all of these roles, there’s a fascinating crossroads of empathy that makes this a special experience, even for the ImaginOn fantasy palace.
Under Mark Sutton’s finely nuanced direction, the cast immerses itself into these kids and their interactions without regressing into them. Even the lighter, sillier moments aren’t tainted with excess mimicry. I was especially impressed with Scott Miller’s rendering of Danny, his guarded slouch persisting even when he resolves to do something remarkably brave. Danny’s vulnerability remains near the surface no matter how merry the moment, so his sudden disintegration comes as no surprise.
As Penny, Veda Covington must change from her kid-on-the-street self to her daughter personality each time one of her cellphones rings. There’s a little of the spoiled brat to the kid, but as the ambassador between her bickering parents, she isn’t always the submissive child. Sometimes she’s the real grownup. With Angelo, the differences are perhaps more subtle for Rahsheem Shabazz. There are different shades of inferiority that he feels toward the affluent Penny and his abusive dad, but it’s wariness rather than superiority that dominates his attitude toward Danny.
Leslie Ann Giles has so often been the grownup in the room during her 10 seasons with the Children’s Theatre touring company, particularly in their various Commedia lampoons. So it’s interesting to see her going against that grain as Louise, the wayward adult who needs to beg for a second and third chance – from her son! Giles obviously revels in the opportunity to be so complicated, wanting to be the good mother and provider but frequently sliding backwards in those uphill battles.
As hard as some parents struggle to maintain the illusion that they’ve got everything under control, I wonder how uncomfortable taking their children to see the Carters might be. Danny could be the perfect medicine for such parents. I know that I felt myself rooting ardently for both Danny and Louise.
The relationship between African Americans and Jews has been a fascinating convergence of parallel histories and unavoidable class conflict. We’ve had a couple of dramas here before that dramatized the relationship, beginning with Alfred Uhry’s famed Driving Miss Daisy, which reached the Charlotte stage in 1991, just two years after the Oscar-winning movie. The 1988 Pulitzer Prize winner took us back to Atlanta after World War 2, when the curmudgeonly Daisy was in denial about her physical deterioration, her racist attitudes, and the prevalence of anti-Semitism in her city.
Just over three years ago, Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte brought us Matthew Lopez’s The Whipping Boy, transporting us to the first days of Reconstruction after the Civil War, when two emancipated slaves returned to their former owner’s home for Passover. Between Uhry’s drama and Lopez’s auspicious 2011 debut, Tony Kushner collaborated with composer Jeanine Tesori on a musical – a chamber opera, really – that looks at yet another Jewish household where an African American was employed.
Until last February 26, when Theatre Charlotte brought Caroline, or Change to its lobby for one night only, the widely-hailed 2003 piece had never been performed in the Queen City. It’s unquestionably the most ambitious Grand Night for Singing event held at the 501 Queens Road barn. The format has been in a cabaret spirit, songs selected from a rarely performed musical taking up half of the program, more rarities by the same composers after intermission. With Caroline, music director Zachary Tarlton staged a concert-style production of the full show – and so many people bought tickets that Theatre Charlotte executive director Ron Law nearly had to move the performance out of the lobby and into the auditorium.
Caroline Thibodeaux works in the bowels of a home owned by Stuart Gellman and his second wife, Rose, but the core of Kushner’s story – an autobiographical one according to the playwright’s intro to the printed edition – is the relationship between Caroline and Noah, Stuart’s 8-year-old son from a previous marriage. Although Caroline takes place in 1963, closer in time to Daisy than Whipping Boy, its resemblances to Lopez’s script are strong enough that it could have served as the younger playwright’s model. During the Passover holiday celebrated by Caleb DeLeon in Whipping Boy, President Abraham Lincoln is assassinated. In the November-December timeline of Caroline, John F. Kennedy is assassinated before the Gellmans’ Chanukah celebration.
If Kushner had a model, the likeliest candidate would be another autobiographical play, Athol Fugard’s Master Harold, in which the title character also behaves unforgivably toward a black person working for his dad. In her dignity, in the way Caroline absorbs Noah’s abuse in apartheid Lake Charles, Louisiana, she very much resembles Sam’s forbearance toward Hally in apartheid Port Elizabeth, South Africa, in 1950. The big difference is that Kushner looks at Caroline as critically as he looked at Noah.
She’s a divorced, conspicuously joyless mother of three, staunchly resistant to change. The entire cast was outstanding, but we were especially fortunate to have Tracie Frank in the title role. We had a brief sampling of Frank’s gospel fire last spring in Theatre Charlotte’s production of Jesus Christ Superstar, but even her Whitney Houston bravura singing “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” hardly cushioned the surprise of this sustained excellence, her silent reactions nearly as taut as her vocals.
Stuart and Rose realize they’re not paying Caroline enough to comfortably take care of her three children, but they do what they can. In order to teach her stepson a lesson – and to slip the Thibodeauxs some extra cash – Rose decrees that Caroline can have whatever loose change Noah carelessly leaves in his pockets when she puts his clothes in the washing machine. Noah is more softhearted than Rose, so he starts leaving loose change in his pockets on purpose – until Chanukah rolls around.
Grandpa Stocknick, Rose’s dad, gives Noah a $20 bill in Chanukah gelt. Some days later, Noah is back in school and realizes that he has left the 20 in a pair of pants earmarked for the laundry. His piddling charity is in serious jeopardy of becoming lavish generosity, and he rushes home to retrieve his gift. Too late. It’s nearly Christmas, her three kids expect something under the tree, so do you think Caroline is going to put that $20 bill back in the bleach cup for Noah?
Noah is even less likable than Caroline in the fight that ensues, so it’s to Rixey Terry’s credit that he made the transition from adulating schoolboy to beneficent master to sore and abrasive loser so convincingly over the course of the night – and no fewer than 15 songs. Terry didn’t try to emulate an eight-year-old, so he didn’t sound at all like Harrison Chad on the cast album, a prudent choice for this reading-stage style presentation, adroitly stage directed by Corey Mitchell. He and the other younger members – the three Thibodeaux siblings and The Radio – had their music down pat, thanks to some good hard work and, I suspect, that cast album.
Yes, the dramatis personae included some inanimate objects that brought Caroline’s basement domain quirkily to life, often with a gospel flavor. Dani Burke was Caroline’s Washing Machine while Maya Sistruck, Dominique Atwater, and Kayla Ferguson were The Radio, even more amazing when they harmonized than when they soloed. Among these kitchen accouterments, Tyler Smith was the king of appliances as The Dryer in an electrifying performance, Tesori’s score starting him off with a mix of street shout, yelped with Porgy and Bess gusto, and R&B that he crushed into the depths of his velvety bass baritone – with The Radio providing backup.
More of Kushner’s fanciful universe turned up outside of Caroline’s basement. Much to our delight, Smith returned to the row of lecterns at centerstage as The Bus taking Caroline and her friend Dotty home from work, but Brittany Currie often lurked on the side as The Moon, emblematic of change. The change that Noah leaves in his pants isn’t the only change Caroline struggles with. Although $30 a week isn’t enough to get by, it’s Dotty who is resolved to do something about it, going to night school in an effort to better herself.
So it’s both Dotty’s energy and initiative at the end of a long workday that irritates Caroline. Watching Veda Covington as Dotty, bragging that her daytime employer is actually proud of what she’s doing, I found myself a little irritated with both women, Dotty for needling her friend and Caroline for her unremitting sullenness. Currie as The Moon was a somewhat soothing presence crooning about change, but there was also a wisp of sultry sensuality in her vocals, very effective in this cabaret setting.
Mitchell had the races sitting at opposite sides of the stage when they weren’t at the lecterns, accentuating how little they actually interact during this musical. It’s mostly Noah and stepmama Rose who show an active interest in Caroline. Although she badly flubbed the Yiddish word for navel, Allison Snow Rhinehardt was an otherwise credible balaboosteh: a little unsure of her footing with both the new stepson and the help, somewhat sensitive to their feelings, yet definitely reveling in her mission to run the household and to command.
Upstairs-downstairs decorum was broken momentarily at the Chanukah party in one of Kushner’s most insightful scenes. Asked to help with the extra party housework, Caroline’s eldest daughter Emmie gets into an argument with Rose’s father about the efficacy of Dr. King’s non-violent civil rights movement. Caroline is outraged by her daughter’s presumption, Emmie is angered by her mother’s inbred meekness, and Mr. Stopnick thinks this is the first real conversation he has had since coming South to visit his daughter. Excellent work here from Frank, TyNia Brandon, and Vito Abate.
I would have been quite content just to witness some local theatre company putting Caroline on its feet after all these years. The fortunate few who attended the February 26 performance saw something far finer. With a minimum of rehearsal, the 17 singers and Tarlton performed nearly flawlessly, all the more astonishing when you consider that the musical director was never in the line of sight of any of the performers even once as they performed this challenging two-hour Tesori score.
Here’s hoping that we don’t have to wait another 13 years before Caroline, or Change is produced here again – and that, when Kushner’s lone musical returns, it will be fully staged in a larger hall for a larger audience in a longer run. As it deserves.