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“There are places inside us only song can reach.” Tony Kushner is best known for Angels in America, his Pulitzer winning play from the early nineties that became an HBO miniseries. Caroline, or Change, first performed in 2003 as an Off-Broadway production, is his first musical. It’s a semi-autobiographical play about a white Jewish boy named Noah (Charlie Gallacher and Aaron Gelkoff) whose mum has died and who yearns for the love of the family’s African-American help Caroline (Sharon D. Clarke). The year is 1963 in a small town in Louisiana and Noah is too young to understand why Caroline holds back even as he proudly speaks of her as “our maid.” In the year of the assassination of John F. Kennedy, a few years before that of Martin Luther King, change is coming, however – even in Lake Charles.
The show begins with Fly Davis’s empty set. A dimly lit town square, a statue of a Confederate soldier in the middle, the past dead as stone. And then the present erupts. In the basement of the Gellman house where Caroline’s work companions, the washing machine and the tumble dryer come to life to serenade her, the radio becomes a trio out of Motown with matching wigs and antennas on their head, all portents of a new dawn – one that Caroline, in a soaring performance by Sharon D. Clarke, is too weary to believe.
Tony Kushner and Jeanine Tesori have written a fierce, rousing opera (the entire play is sung through) celebrating that turning point in American history that was the Civil Rights Movement. At its core, though, Caroline, or Change is a love letter. The wounded white boy has grown up. He wants Caroline to know that she did not suffer in vain. That he appreciates and loves her as a human being. And what better way to communicate this than through music.
Tesori said that Caroline, or Change changed the way she saw musical theatre. There is no sentimentality here. Racism strips everybody of their humanity, oppressor as well as oppressed. Noah describes his melancholic father Stuart (Alastair Brookshaw) as “a clarinet.” The new wife from New York, Rose Stopnick (Lauren Ward), turns into a caricature of a mean Southern housewife. And Caroline, who is alone with four children to feed, tries so hard to be like the machines she operates because she “can’t afford” to feel – only for us to watch the full power of her heart, her memories, her love manifest in her voice.
Michael Longhurst’s direction in the small Hampstead Theatre is full of energy; the nearly twenty-strong cast move seamlessly. There is a rhythmic quality to the production that carries us through the first act but the magic is in the second when the Confederate statue disappears mysteriously one night and is found headless in “Choo Choo Bayou.” Caroline’s teenage daughter, Emmie (Abiona Omonua), is jubilant about the fate of that symbol of slavery and racism and so is Caroline’s forward-looking friend Dotty (Naana Agyei-Ampadu). Caroline herself, however, is disapproving: she still sees struggle as futile but the tension is building. Until something happens in the basement of the house and Caroline must make a choice.
There is a popular storyline these days about middle-aged women pushed to the brink of despair by loss. They often end in murder or suicide and they’re usually about white middle-class women. Caroline, too, has lost the man she loves; she has trouble providing for her family; she, too, is alone. She swallows her humiliation and digs for the strength to go on and with every gulp, her face tightens.
Emmie sings: “Change come fast and change come slow, but everything changes and you got to go.”
And this is where Kushner shines. Change comes from within. Caroline does not need to turn “into salt” to ensure her and her children’s survival. She can allow herself to feel. She can stop swallowing and pretending she’s not human. Caroline has changed.
And the world would follow.
Caroline, or Change continues at the Hampstead Theatre until April 21 2018. It will then transfer to the West End’s Playhouse Theatre from November 20 to February 9.