By ALAN SMASON, WYES-TV Theatre Critic (“Steppin’ Out“)
There is an adage to which many critics adhere that there is only one “i” in review; ergo, critical analysis which employs the first person should be similarly limited. But the current production of Caroline, or Change, co-produced by Loyola University and the Jefferson Performing Arts Society, is so compelling and strikes so close to home, that I have been moved to reflect on it in a most personal way.
The setting for Tony Kushner’s book and lyrics and Jeanine Tesori’s emotional score is 1963’s Lake Charles, Louisiana, the city in which Kushner was raised. Caroline (Troi Bechet), an African-American maid is seen in the first of several scenes in a basement in the home of the Gellmans, a well-to-do Jewish family.
Through a recitative musical form, Bechet’s character bemoans the state in which she finds herself, alone among her washing machine (Kyler Jett) and dryer (Isaiah Aaron Jone) with no one to keep her company but a radio (Talia Moore, Cereyna Bougouneau, and Kharissa Newbill). A basement in Lake Charles is an oddity and Caroline, a single mother, daydreams while doing her mundane chores of washing, drying and ironing.
The intersection of a maid raising a Jewish child in a home with a finished basement in a Louisiana city seems to be too much coincidence to ignore. In my case, all of these were factors during my own childhood. Just as Noah witnesses the beginnings of the Civil Rights era and the time when African-Americans began to seek out equal opportunity under the law, I, too, saw such change.
Loyola University sophomore Kristen Swanson plays the trouser role of Noah Gellman, the figure in whom Kushner imbued his most autobiographical of trappings. The young boy looks at Caroline as a shining and powerful a figure like that of the president of the United States, who was slain that very day in Dallas. Swanson plays the role with a youthful ebullience and her singing is a perfect counterpart to that of Bechet’s Caroline.
Noah’s father, Stuart Gellman (Mark Weinberg), a clarinetist, has remarried on the rebound of the death of his bassoonist wife. His new wife Rose Stopnick Gellman (Anja Mayer-Avsharian), a New Yorker, desperately wants to be a good mother to Noah and fit in, but she finds herself living in the Deep South, a member of a minority family in times when other minority families – African-Americans – are discounted and lacking the rights she takes for granted. Tessori’s use of the bassoon in key scenes is her way of inserting the influence of Noah’s deceased mother. Noah seems to find a closer connection with Caroline than he does Rose.
Caroline works hard to put food on the table for her children, raising two boys Jackie and Joe Thibodeaux (Renell Taylor and Taiya Culbertson) and dealing with her troubled teen Emmie Thibodeaux (Charis Michelle Gullage). The scenes between Caroline and Emmie are charged with emotion and foreshadow the change indicated in the title as the Civil Rights era is about the ramp up.
Just around Chanukah time in December, Noah’s paternal grandparents (Francine Segal and Martin Covert) drop by to celebrate the holiday and to check in on the rambunctious youth. Both Covert and Segal sing their roles with relative ease as having had the good fortune to claim the New Orleans Jewish community as their own. Tessori allows the Klezmer melody on their son’s clarinet to interact with his parents’ voices in song lyrics sharpened by Kushner.
Above the ramshackle house Caroline calls home and the more opulent setting of the Gellman home, the Moon calls out to everyone below. The Moon is played by vocal talent Jessica Martin, whose beautiful soprano soars in counterpart to the other characters.
Other noted performers are Brianna Thompson as Dotty Moffett, another domestic trying to better her life by attending school, but who runs afoul of Caroline’s resentment. Paul Bello appears in an interesting role as Rose’s father and Noah’s grandfather, Mr. Stopnick.
Part of the undercurrent running in the book is the attachment to money that impresses Rose, her father and her stepson. Leaving spare change in pants pockets is frowned upon, because it shows a flippant regard towards money. Rose, like Kushner’s real life mother, valued money highly, because the family lacked at times. To cure Noah of his habit, she instructs Caroline that any loose money found will belong to her, and cautions her stepson to be cautious.
Caroline sings of her disgust at being tempted by the money, although she badly needs a raise and knows it would help her family. She doesn’t want to take a child’s money, but when a Chanukah present of great value is mistakenly left behind, Caroline has to think long and hard about what is right. Noah stretches the truth and a rift between him and Caroline develops.
Laura Hope’s direction of this production borders on absolute perfection. With Bechet’s magnificent instrument, she has a vocalist who brings gravitas and emotion to the role. Donna Clavijo’s musical direction is also spot on with conductor Chris Bergeron leading a finely balanced ensemble of 11 musicians. These include five strings, two reed players, a guitarist, two percussionists and Clavijo on piano. Kyler Jett steps in from her assistant director and choreographer positions to fill in the role of the Washing Machine originally slated for Skylar Broussard.
The African-American and Jewish-American experiences truly intersect in “Caroline, or Change.” Kushner takes a few liberties with the historical record of the day in order to make the book flow, but these are very minor. In the end Caroline has moved from where she was at the beginning of the work.
A Confederate statue that has been destroyed in Lake Charles also figures in the musical. Hope and Dennis Assaf of JPAS selected the work prior to the controversy over the removal of four local Confederate statues. Neither could have known how appropriate this production would be in the aftermath of those removals and the sea of controversy which they stirred.
This is a production that needs to be seen by everyone who felt strongly about the monuments on either side of the issue. It is also a production that Jews should see because of its depiction of mostly positive treatment of African-Americans at a time prior to the development of a schism between the two minority groups. Sadly, despite the work of a number of socially active Jews who fought for Civil Rights and helped establish groups like the N.A.A.C.P., there is still some distrust between them. While “Caroline, or Change” does not deal with that, it does recall an idyllic time when the innocence of America was tested like no other time since the Civil War. It sets the tone for what is about to come and can be looked at as something of a touchstone for those who, unlike me, did not grow up through that era.
Caroline, or Change ends its run this weekend with performances at the Westwego Performing Arts Center, 177A Sala Avenue in Westwego. Final show times are at 7:30 p.m. Saturday night, Nov. 4 and a 2:00 matinee on Sunday, Nov. 5.