“Sixteen feet below sea level, torn tween the Devil and the muddy brown sea,” Caroline (the terrific Sharon D Clarke) characterizes her existence to herself in the musical revival Caroline, or Change at Studio 54. At the outset Caroline is in the basement doing the laundry for the Gellmans accompanied by the rhythms of The Washing Machine (Arica Jackson) and The Radio singers #1, #2, #3 (Nasia Thomas, NYA, Harper Miles). They are anthropomorphic representations of Caroline, along with The Dryer (Kevin S. McAllister) who makes the atmosphere as “hot as hell.”
Tony Kushner’s book and lyrics and Jeanine Tesori’s music bring to life a portrait of a black maid’s inner hell. She has no prospects of betterment to uplift herself out of the symbolic, oppressive swamps of white supremacist Lake Charles, Louisiana, 1963. Embittered, miserable, impoverished, on a minimum wage to support herself and three kids, she has lost hope waiting for goodness to come. She resents everyone, most of all “Caroline” who has created the situation she finds herself in, abandoned by her husband, single, a drudge at thirty-nine-years old.
While other blacks in the South become involved with the Civil Rights Movement and march against the brutality of Jim Crow, led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, or seek an education, the exhausted Caroline can barely suffer herself through the next day’s labors cleaning and watching over the Gellman’s son, eight-year-old Noah (Jaden Myles Waldman the evening I saw it) who mourns his recently deceased mother. Her employers, Stuart Gellman (John Cariani) and Rose, his second wife (Caissie Levy) who attempts to be nice to Caroline, only make the situation worse.
Victims themselves of institutional racism, caught up in the discriminatory animus of the South, they can’t afford to raise Caroline’s wages. Nor do they relate to her on a personal level to uplift her, not that she would accept their attempts.
Indeed, throughout the play Caroline’s soul is metaphorically buried alive and/or drowning underwater as she struggles to pay for rent and food for herself and her children, one of whom is in Viet Nam. It is clear no one is coming to dig her out or rescue her, least of all herself. Unless a catalyst stirs her to resurrection, she will continue until the anger breaks out in violence against others; or she turns to self-destruction (acutely represented in a scene with Rose at the show’s turning point).
Interestingly, this horror of racism and its witting/unwitting adherents to a system that destroys is only made watchable through Tesori’s music, and Kushner’s poetic lyrics. Caroline’s anger and self-hatred projected out onto everyone, including friend Dotty Moffett (Tamike Lawrence) could have been a one-note agony of oppression and bondage. Key themes would have been undermined and occluded without the symbolism and majesty of the music and the fabulous voices that weave out Caroline’s story, of her inability to hope in an era when hope was the watchword of the Black South.
Tesori’s vibrant mix of 1950s-60s R & B/pop/soul/jazz/klezmer with a Diana Ross and The Supreme’s number at the finale and Kushner’s lyrics throughout measure like a soaring opera. They elevate the character of Caroline into an epic hero with her attendants, The Moon (the lovely voiced N’Kenge) and her children, especially Emmie (Samantha Williams) who has the spunk and courage to envision more for herself. Without our learning about Caroline’s emotional devastation embodied by the sonorous, operatic voices, Caroline or Change would have lost its vitality, currency and great moment, all of which are timeless and relatable to America 2021.
The superb cast is up for the challenge, singing beautifully, powerfully. Initially, it took me a while to understand the lyrics; the performers’ articulation wasn’t as acute as needed. However, like getting used to Shakespearean language, the heightened bond between the cast and the audience conveyed the centrality of Caroline’s conflicts. These become “a matter of ethics,” pride and dignity for her as a black woman who must carve out her identity in a bludgeoning, challenging racist society. What Kushner fashions as an issue of nickels and dimes evolves into the crux of black economic experience in the U.S, then and now.
Caroline’s dilemma is whether or not to take the change left in Noah’s pants pockets that he forgets to remove before Caroline does the laundry. Rose tells her to take it as a lesson for Noah to learn to “mind his money.” Caroline desperately needs the small bit of change, but also needs her soul to be intact. The minuscule handout becomes a symbolic gesture of Noah’s grandiose charity (in his view he believes Caroline and family appreciate his “largesse”). From Caroline’s perspective it symbolizes belittling crumbs of corruption taken from a “child,” making her an indigent, a beggar who cannot “rise above.” When she submits to temptation out of want for her children, she drains her dignity and faith in herself to “make it on her own,”
Of course, there would be no problem if the emotionally challenged Gellmans just provided a living wage instead of using money as a perverse lure for Caroline to damn herself. Caroline’s conflict symbolically parallels the perniciousness of economic inequality in America. It recalls demeaning public assistance handouts. Instead, if corporations paid the proportionate taxation rates, and with employers provided a decent, living wage, poverty, misery and an unequal justice system could be eradicated. However, the the US with its notorious history of enslavement (both white, black and colored) needs to demean souls to feed its own psychic sickness and keep the washing machine laboring by the underclasses to cleanse itself from its deranged filth.
This is just one of the themes Kushner reveals in a production luxurious with ironies and messages. Another controversy to look for is the dynamic between the Gellman’s situation and Caroline’s. The Gellmans are Jews who, too, experience discrimination and abuse as outsiders from the white supremacists that dominate the surrounding culture not only in the South but indeed, everywhere. Yet, there is little real empathy or understanding between Caroline and the Gellmans.
This humorously comes to the fore during the Chanukah celebration. Rose’s father, Mr. Stopnick (Chip Zien masterfully steals the moment) a Jew from New York City rails against Southern racism and hypocrisy. He uplifts the blacks’ position to foment violent revolution, which he suggests should have happened with the US Communist Party in the 1930s. Of course he is shushed up.
Meanwhile, his attitude about money which he delivers in a Marxist speech to Noah as he gives him Chanukah gelt is ironic. The twenty dollars ends up in Caroline’s “change cup.” Noah and she argue and afterward, Caroline realizes the fullness of the compromised, hateful individual she’s allowed herself to become. Sharon D. Clarke’s aria ‘Lot’s Wife’ is a showstopper. In the song Caroline’s conflict spills out in an epiphany. She concludes with a prayer to God, “Set me free; don’t let my sorrow make evil of me.”
Michael Longhurst’s direction of the ensemble is excellently dotted with interesting choices. The revolving platform is used symbolically. For example, during the Chanukah Party, Caroline, Dotty and daughter Emmie go in circles to please the Gellmans. Kudos enlightened staging by Fly Davis (set and costume design). Yet Caroline, et. al control; their servitude defines their strength. Without them, the Gellmans would be “on their own,” incapable, unable, weak. We are reminded of the South’s “need” of slavery rather than building a strong foundation from their own or paid labor which would have stultified their laziness and greed and encouraged a more prosperous economy and no need for a Civil War to end slavery, that peculiar “Christian” institution.
Kudos to the creative team: Jack Knowles (lighting) Paul Arditti (sound) Amanda Miller (hair and wigs) Sarah Cimino (make-up) Joseph Joubert (music direction) Nigel Lilley (music supervision) Ann Lee (choreography) who express Kushner’s themes roundly and provide a glistening backdrop (the swampland surrounding the house is wonderful) for the cast to play upon.
Caroline or Change opened in 2003 at The Public Theatre to mixed reviews, though it garnered awards. Sharon D Clarke starred as Caroline and won an Olivier for it in the London production in 2017. In the Roundabout production she reaffirms her grandeur, infusing her portrayal with substance, hitting her emotional peaks and turns with a resonant, anointed voice. This is one to see for the cast’s performances. If you missed it in 2003, don’t miss it in 2021. It is a reminder of what was and what is and a hope of what might be if we leave off divisive hatreds and rebirth ourselves to a better way. For tickets and times go to their website https://www.roundabouttheatre.org/get-tickets/2021-2022-season/caroline-or-change/