By ALAN SMASON, WYES-TV Theatre Critic (“Steppin’ Out“)
Coming just a year after the tragic deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor and last summer’s massive Black Lives Matter responsive protests, the recently-opened revival of Jeanine Tessori and Tony Kushner’s Caroline, or Change by the Roundabout Theatre Company gives Broadway musical audiences a powerful reminder of how far we have come and how much further we need to go as a nation.
This opus, might better be termed an opera, because dialogue is sung throughout and its structure more accurately follows arias, duets and choruses associated with that art form.
In establishing the setting for Caroline, or Change, Tony Kushner’s titular character, Caroline Thibodeaux, stands, sorting the laundry, while she sings in the opening:
Nothing ever happen under ground
cause there ain’t no under ground
There is only
Kushner’s libretto notes the unique feature of the Gellman home in Lake Charles.
got a basement.
No other house round here gots one.
Lake Charles was the site of Kushner’s real Jewish home of his youth and he based Caroline, or Change, on its unusual features. While I also grew up in a Louisiana Jewish home (a three-hour drive away in mostly below sea level New Orleans), I also had a rare-in-Louisiana basement similarly outfitted with a washing machine and a dryer.
My housekeeper was not named Caroline, though. She was Victoria. But in many ways she had much in common with Kushner’s fictional character. She worked downstairs in the basement attending to the laundry and was a deeply spiritual person. In fact, clothed in an identical white uniform to what Caroline Thibodeaux wears on stage, Victoria raised my younger sister and I in the absence of what was then a rarity, two working parents.
Sharon D Clarke takes on the persona of Caroline with gravitas and respect for the single working mother, whose abusive husband has disappeared and left her to raise three almost grown children in 1963, just as the nation and the world is going through the crisis of a presidential assassination.
Gabriel Amoroso and Adam Makké alternatively play the character of Noah Gellman, a nine-year-old precocious boy coping with the loss of his mother to cancer and his father’s rebound marriage to Rose Stopnick. Noah is important link in the connective tissue between his Jewish blended family and that of Caroline and her teenage daughter Emmie and her two younger sons Jackie and Joe.
Clarke is riveting as the stoic maid, attempting to be the strong provider for her family, while challenged by the harsh climate of racism and repressive class structure prevalent in what was then called the Deep South. Kushner’s lyrics are raw, peppered with the idiomatic phrases and language of the Black working class. Tessori’s music is expressive with occasional dips into the popular repertoire, especially the blues-tinged Dryer (Kevin S. McAllister), whom Caroline calls “the Devil.’ as well as the Washing Machine (Arica Jackson) and the trio comprising the Radio (Nasia Thomas, Nya and Harper Miles).
Perhaps as a coping mechanism, Caroline is often escaping the routine with an ever-present cigarette in her hand. Noah delights in lighting her cigarette for her and coaxing her to blow smoke rings. He has never gotten over his mother’s death from lung cancer, nor has he forgiven his father for his “weakness” in bringing Rose Stopnick Gellman (Caissie Levy) into their lives.
Caroline our maid!
Caroline our maid!
Caroline! Caroline! Caroline
the President of the United States!
Caroline who’s always mad,
Caroline who runs everything,
Caroline who’s stronger than my dad.
In our basement, where she’ll let
me light her daily cigarette.
Kushner wrote Caroline, or Change in the decade following his own mother’s passing from lung cancer in 1990. Like Noah’s fictional deceased mother, Kushner’s real mother was a bassoonist, but it is curious he makes Noah’s father a widower while Noah is still in his formative years. Kushner has stated that the period was very hard on women who worked. As a domestic worker making just $30 per week, Caroline Thibodeaux experiences an oppressive life, but she works because she has to fend for her family.
In the basement of the Gellman home, she hears the Radio sing in a chorus:
Caroline! Mercy me!
Thirty-nine and divorcee!
How on earth she gonna thrive,
when her life bury her alive?
Kushner’s provocative title refers dually to the turbulent times of the Civil Rights era as well as to the break in her routine existence created when Rose confronts Caroline over her practice of placing forgotten change she finds while doing the laundry in her bleach cup. Caroline’s upbringing prevents her from taking the Gellman family’s coins for her own, even though she could clearly use them to give extras to her children like sweets or comic books.
A Northerner from New York City and finding it uncomfortable to fit in, Rose tries to find ways to help Caroline by first offering her leftover food and then deciding to offer her the opportunity to take whatever she finds in forgotten change in Noah’s pockets. She tells Noah that Caroline is poor, but he refuses to believe it.
Oh, Noah, of course she is.
She’s poor, it’s embarrassing
to have her find money
just left in the laundry:
think of the things she could do with these quarters,
these nickels snd pennies–
As Stuart Gellman, John Cariani plays both his role and his clarinet with ease. He is an essential link between Noah, his paternal grandparents (Joy Hermalyn and Stuart Zagnit) his stepmother and her father, Mr. Stopnick (Chip Zien). Mr. Stopnick, who we learn is an agitator and activist, is critical of the South for its treatments of poor Blacks. Cariani does an excellent job playing clarinet, too.
What is critical to remember is that being Jewish in the South of the 1960s was also challenging (whether in Lake Charles or New Orleans). Kushner and Tessori’s most enjoyable coming together musically is in the depiction of the two cultures of Jews and Blacks clashing at “The Chanukah Party.” In this scene, Caroline and her confidant and friend Dotty (Tamika Lawrence) are both wearing their white uniforms, while Emmie is in a dress.
While Tessori’s music gravitates towards the minor scales to emulate the popular Chanukah songs, there is conflict between the lives of those attending at the party and those serving at it. Mr. Stopnick believes the best way to secure change is through confrontation and he is critical of non-violence. It is Emmie who outwardly and loudly challenges his philosophy in defiance of her mother. This reinforces a disconnect between Caroline’s generation and that of her children, who are not being complacent with the way things are. This speaks to the impending changes and the changes that may still need to be put into place, even in our present time.
Fly Davis does an outstanding job in providing sets that bring the action of the multi-level Gellman home into focus, from the basement up to the living room and the bedrooms above. Jack Knowles also provides dramatic lighting for the show that emphasizes the darkness inherit in the work.
Caroline, or Change provides much for today’s audiences to consider, but for those that lived through the turbulent times and who witnessed firsthand the inequities in the system, it is a reminder that the hardships endured by the earlier generations can give way to improved conditions. Caroline Thibodeaux’s response to what she endures in the Gellman household gives support to Emmie and her boys to continue to push back to achieve better lives for themselves.
Change can come. Even under ground in Louisiana.
Directed by Michael Longhurst, Caroline or Change continues its limited run at Studio 54 Theatre, 254 W. 54th Street in New York. Music direction is by Joseph Joubert with music supervision by Nigel Lilley and choreography by Ann Yee. For tickets, click here.