Song of the South

Tony Kushner is America’s greatest playwright. Ask anyone. Anyone, that is, except Tony Kushner.

“It bothers me because it’s not true,” says the award-winning Jewish writer of “Angels in America.”

“For everyone who says it about me, they can say it about August Wilson or Donald Margulies. I try to stay out of the whole who’s-the-best debate. The focus should be on your own internal agenda.”

Kushner’s immediate agenda includes coming to the Bay Area for the premiere of his musical “Caroline, or Change,” which kicks off a five-week run Jan. 14 at San Francisco’s Curran Theater. The show features most of the original Broadway cast, including Tonya Pinkins in the title role.

Set in Louisiana at the time of the Kennedy assassination, “Caroline, or Change” tells the story of a black maid and the Jewish family that employs her. The title is a double-entendre, referring both to the social changes of the era and a plot line in which Caroline continually finds change in the pockets of 9-year-old Noah Gellman.

The Jewish motif is loosely based on Kushner’s childhood growing up in St. Charles, La., though “Caroline” is not straight autobiography.

“I came from a Reform Jewish family in 1960s Louisiana,” he says. “The community was very assimilated. When we had music in shul, we had an organ and choir, intended to sound as much like a Protestant choir as it could.”

Co-written with composer Jeanine Tesori, “Caroline, or Change” opened on Broadway to great critical acclaim, though it won only one Tony Award (for Anoki Noni Rose as best featured actress, playing Caroline’s rebellious daughter). It closed after 138 performances.

If the short Broadway run and paucity of awards were signs of mild Kushner fatigue following the overwhelming success of “Angels in America” (he recently won an Emmy for scripting the HBO version), it had no adverse impact on the writer himself, who remains proud of the show.

“It was a thrilling collaboration,” he says of his partnership with Tesori, the Tony Award-winning composer of 2002’s “Thoroughly Modern Millie.” “We loved spending time with each other.”

Tesori’s music is a luscious melange of period R&B, familiar classical motifs and hyper-rhythmic recitative. There’s even a splash of klezmer and “The Chanukah Song” thrown into the mix for good mazel.

Fans have long admired Kushner’s unexcelled mastery of the English language, which ran wild in plays like “Homebody/Kabul,” “A Bright Room Called Day” and “Angels in America.”

In “Caroline,” his use of language was delimited by musical time signature. But if, as Robert Frost once said, poetry is “freedom in harness,” then Kushner found writing lyrics and a libretto thoroughly liberating.

“It’s hard,” says Kushner, “but I find it a lot of fun. It’s like learning to drive on the other side of the street in England. You have your rhyming dictionary and you’re pretty much set up.”

Like most of Kushner’s plays, “Caroline, or Change” tackles multiple subjects, in this case the budding civil rights movement, fractured stepfamilies and the inner world of a sad, young boy. Political by nature, Kushner uses the musical stage to make bold observations about the South of the 1960s.

“The South was not a homogenous entity,” he says. “In southwest Louisiana we were very far away from it all. The community as a whole was basically sympathetic to the civil rights movement. There was no active Klan, no lynching. It was a gentle kind of racism, and everyone kind of got along.”

Moreover, the Jews of Kushner’s hometown were not unlike their northern counterparts. “Most Jews supported Dr. King,” he says, “and thought he was a great American. There was a great deal of racism in the Jewish community but also a feeling that emancipation and enfranchisement were human rights.”

Judaism impacted Kushner growing up and continues today. A member of New York City’s Congregation B’nai Jeshurun, he has been an outspoken critic of Israeli policy in the territories, having co-edited “Wrestling with Zion,” a 2003 collection of pointedly left-of-center essays on the subject. “I’m an agnostic,” notes Kushner, “and most of my involvement in Judaism is political. I’m not frum.”

Kushner, who workshopped “Angels in America” in the Bay Area, is happy to bring his latest show to San Francisco, which he acknowledges as a great theater town. “San Francisco,” he says, “is unique in all the planet, and attracted a lot of interesting complicated people who naturally gravitate to the theater.”

Up next for Kushner, a play about which he’ll say little other than that it will be his first gay play since “Angels.” But if the past is any guide, it could have a Jewish subplot as well. “I think about being Jewish all the time,” he says. “I think like a Jewish person, whatever that means. It’s my strongest ethical tradition and a profound part of my identity.”

“Caroline, or Change” plays 8 p.m., Tuesday-Saturday; 2 p.m., Sunday, Jan. 14 to Feb. 20, at the Curran Theater, 445 Geary, S.F. Tickets: $45-$90. Information: (415) 512-7770.

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.