“Caroline, or Change”

“Caroline, or Change” is back on Broadway, having last occupied a Broadway theater in 2004. Although this is technically a musical, it sounds like an Opera to my ears. 

In this production, directed by Michael Longhurst, what stands out in the production design is a statue of a confederate soldier holding 

a confederate flag, and he’s tall, stage center and surrounded by even taller stalks of wheat and green grass. An inscription at the soldier’s feet does not offer a name, but simply reads, “The Southern Defenders 1861-1865” —slap in the face much?

You can’t help but connect this statue back to the current controversies swirling around similar monuments, including recent calls for the removal of the actual South Defenders Monument in Lake Charles, La. where this play is set. Here is another painful reminder of slavery on a myriad of levels. 

“Caroline, or Change” is set in 1963, during the chaotic period when 

President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, and it’s the height of the civil rights movement.

This is the story of a white family, the Gellman’s, and their underground basement, where the poorly paid, divorced, and bitter, middle-aged African American maid, Caroline Thibodeaux (Sharon D Clarke) unleashes her anger. And Clark’s stunning performance earned her an Olivier Award for her performance in the role because let’s be frank, she does anger, well. I mean Ms. Caroline is miserable as she puffs on her cigarette, smothering with flame, and ash. When she smiles, which is rare, it’s because she’s thinking about kisses from Nat King Cole. Her imagination is ripe, with the machinery (washing machine and radio) coming alive like a Motown review, 

(Beautifully performed by Nasia Thomas, Nya, and Harper Miles).

Caroline complains, which is understandable about working as a maid (she’s 39), and deeply believes that this is her fate. She’s downright hopeless, drowning in depression, and is working hard on destroying her life. To be frank, she’s so filled with anger it’s a reach to feel empathy for her, exactly, but she’s a woman of color, so I dug deep. Caroline is the picture of slavery’s trauma. She lacks self-esteem because the world she’s living  is designed to break her spirit. This is vital context and unless you really understand this fact, she just looks like another angry African American woman. 

But we all search for happiness, and for Caroline is no different, and  it’s her happy, singing Washing Machine (Arica Jackson) who splashes joy and serves as a reminder that Caroline’s chores are just about finished, but the hot Dryer (Kevin McAllister) brings her crashing back to reality and reminds her that she’s in a dead-end job and living a boring life. Although on the surface the costumes (designed by Davis ) might seem simple but they are perfect, giving objects that dazzle and pop of rich textures that help bring life to the rather dull environment. 

An interesting fact, Caroline’s employers (the Gellman family) are actually Jewish and white presenting. The father, Stuart Gellman (John Cariani), has recently remarried but is emotionally detached still mourning the sudden death of his beloved first wife. His new spouse Rose Stopnick Gellman (Caissie Levy) dishes out those painful microaggressions, like a heap of delicious sides at Thanksgiving. This bubbly, Jewish woman has brought into the American dream hook-line-and-sinker, including having an African American maid. In an act of “charity” (aka microaggressions) she tries to give Caroline leftovers and other unwanted “things” to Caroline as a sign of their “friendship.” Stuart’s young son, Noah (Gabriel Amoroso) is grieving (sort of) and warms up to Caroline’s family, which he dreams about being a part of.

Pushing into the title of the play – “Caroline, or Change” — the word, change, 

takes on multiple meanings. One moment it’s literally about the loose coin, change, that she finds inside Noah’s pockets while doing her daily laundry. In another moment, change represents her life’s transition and the fear of getting older. Caroline’s daughter Emmie (Samantha Williams), isn’t depressed, in fact, she’s a rebel and a product of her time. She’s also 

instrumental in helping her mother take a deep dive into her old-fashioned beliefs and works to fight the system that’s trying to break their race.  

“Caroline, or Change” is a tremendous piece of theater. Memorable and powerful and a reminder that change begins inside, and that change is absolutely necessary. 

“Caroline, or Change” playing at the Roundabout Theatre Company Studio Running Time: 2 HOURS 25 MIN.

A Roundabout Theatre Company presentation of a musical in two acts with book and lyrics by Tony Kushner and music by Jeanine Tesori.

Directed by Michael Longhurst. Choreography, Ann Yee. Sets and costumes, Fly Davis; lighting, Jack Knowles; sound, Paul Arditti; hair/wig & makeup, Amanda Miller; orchestrations, Rick Bassett, Joseph Joubert, and Buryl Red; music direction, Joseph Joubert; production stage manager, Pat Sosnow.

Starring Sharon D Clarke, Arica Jackson, Nasia Thomas, Nya, Harper Miles, Gabriel Amosoro, Adam Makké, Jaden Myles Waldman, Kevin S. McAllister, Joy Hermalyn, Stuart Zagnit, Caissie Levy, John Cariani, Tamika Lawrence, N’Kenge, Samantha Williams, Alexander Bello, Richard Alexander Phillips, Jayden Theophile, Chip Zien.

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