Does Tony Kushner know something the rest of us don’t? Six years ago, he began writing a play about a remote Central Asian nation; by the time Homebody/Kabul opened in December 2001, the United States was fighting a war there. Now, amid the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, his 2003 musical Caroline, or Change seems even more eerily prescient. “There ain’t no under ground in Louisiana,” run its newly harrowing opening lines. “There is only under water.”
“Caroline came out of a very powerful sense of home,” says Kushner, reached last week in Budapest, where Steven Spielberg is filming his screenplay for Munich, about the 1972 Olympics terrorists. He drew the musical’s story, about a poor black woman who works for a Jewish family in Louisiana, from his boyhood in Lake Charles. Spared the destruction of Hurricane Katrina, the city has become a refuge for streams of evacuees from New Orleans, 200 miles to the east. According to Kushner, Caroline, who spends her days in the laundry room—“sixteen feet below sea level / caught ’tween the devil and the muddy brown sea”—would not be among them. “The people in Caroline’s economic position are exactly the sort of people who couldn’t get out.”
Kushner was in Provincetown when Katrina landed, and he spent a tense week tracking down friends and family. Two elderly cousins went missing for six days. “They made it through okay, drinking vodka and smoking cigarettes.” Relief gave way to horror as the “Hobbesian nightmare” of New Orleans began to unfold. “It’s the America the Republican Party has been working hard to establish over the last 30 years: no infrastructure, no social safety net, everybody carrying a gun,” he says.
“But I’m also angry at my home state. People from Louisiana have always known—it’s the dirty secret of the South—that there’s horrific poverty there that doesn’t look like poverty anywhere else in the U.S. The hurricane lifted the rock off that little secret. The South for 30 years has been voting to protect the rights of the unborn rather than voting to build levees.”
Despite its concerns with race and class, and its terrifyingly timely water imagery, Caroline “didn’t exactly come to mind” as Kushner watched the scenes of chaos. But some friends called to point out the show’s relevance; others told him they’d found solace in listening to the album of his words and Jeanine Tesori’s score. Out of those conversations has grown a tentative plan to reunite the show’s original Broadway cast for a benefit concert next month. “Obviously it has resonances with the whole horrible situation,” he says.
Those resonances may not have been planned, but they’re not pure coincidence, either. When you write such perceptive and public-minded plays, events are bound to magnify them. However, this pattern does raise one awkward question: Who’s next? Kushner says his next original play, The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism, With a Key to the Scriptures, will be set in Brooklyn. But fear not, he adds: “Nothing bad happens there.”