Theatre Review: Caroline, or Change
By Perry Tannenbaum
The relationship between African Americans and Jews has been a fascinating convergence of parallel histories and unavoidable class conflict. We’ve had a couple of dramas here before that dramatized the relationship, beginning with Alfred Uhry’s famed Driving Miss Daisy, which reached the Charlotte stage in 1991, just two years after the Oscar-winning movie. The 1988 Pulitzer Prize winner took us back to Atlanta after World War 2, when the curmudgeonly Daisy was in denial about her physical deterioration, her racist attitudes, and the prevalence of anti-Semitism in her city.
Just over three years ago, Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte brought us Matthew Lopez’s The Whipping Boy, transporting us to the first days of Reconstruction after the Civil War, when two emancipated slaves returned to their former owner’s home for Passover. Between Uhry’s drama and Lopez’s auspicious 2011 debut, Tony Kushner collaborated with composer Jeanine Tesori on a musical – a chamber opera, really – that looks at yet another Jewish household where an African American was employed.
Until last February 26, when Theatre Charlotte brought Caroline, or Change to its lobby for one night only, the widely-hailed 2003 piece had never been performed in the Queen City. It’s unquestionably the most ambitious Grand Night for Singing event held at the 501 Queens Road barn. The format has been in a cabaret spirit, songs selected from a rarely performed musical taking up half of the program, more rarities by the same composers after intermission. With Caroline, music director Zachary Tarlton staged a concert-style production of the full show – and so many people bought tickets that Theatre Charlotte executive director Ron Law nearly had to move the performance out of the lobby and into the auditorium.
Caroline Thibodeaux works in the bowels of a home owned by Stuart Gellman and his second wife, Rose, but the core of Kushner’s story – an autobiographical one according to the playwright’s intro to the printed edition – is the relationship between Caroline and Noah, Stuart’s 8-year-old son from a previous marriage. Although Caroline takes place in 1963, closer in time to Daisy than Whipping Boy, its resemblances to Lopez’s script are strong enough that it could have served as the younger playwright’s model. During the Passover holiday celebrated by Caleb DeLeon in Whipping Boy, President Abraham Lincoln is assassinated. In the November-December timeline of Caroline, John F. Kennedy is assassinated before the Gellmans’ Chanukah celebration.
If Kushner had a model, the likeliest candidate would be another autobiographical play, Athol Fugard’s Master Harold, in which the title character also behaves unforgivably toward a black person working for his dad. In her dignity, in the way Caroline absorbs Noah’s abuse in apartheid Lake Charles, Louisiana, she very much resembles Sam’s forbearance toward Hally in apartheid Port Elizabeth, South Africa, in 1950. The big difference is that Kushner looks at Caroline as critically as he looked at Noah.
She’s a divorced, conspicuously joyless mother of three, staunchly resistant to change. The entire cast was outstanding, but we were especially fortunate to have Tracie Frank in the title role. We had a brief sampling of Frank’s gospel fire last spring in Theatre Charlotte’s production of Jesus Christ Superstar, but even her Whitney Houston bravura singing “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” hardly cushioned the surprise of this sustained excellence, her silent reactions nearly as taut as her vocals.
Stuart and Rose realize they’re not paying Caroline enough to comfortably take care of her three children, but they do what they can. In order to teach her stepson a lesson – and to slip the Thibodeauxs some extra cash – Rose decrees that Caroline can have whatever loose change Noah carelessly leaves in his pockets when she puts his clothes in the washing machine. Noah is more softhearted than Rose, so he starts leaving loose change in his pockets on purpose – until Chanukah rolls around.
Grandpa Stocknick, Rose’s dad, gives Noah a $20 bill in Chanukah gelt. Some days later, Noah is back in school and realizes that he has left the 20 in a pair of pants earmarked for the laundry. His piddling charity is in serious jeopardy of becoming lavish generosity, and he rushes home to retrieve his gift. Too late. It’s nearly Christmas, her three kids expect something under the tree, so do you think Caroline is going to put that $20 bill back in the bleach cup for Noah?
Noah is even less likable than Caroline in the fight that ensues, so it’s to Rixey Terry’s credit that he made the transition from adulating schoolboy to beneficent master to sore and abrasive loser so convincingly over the course of the night – and no fewer than 15 songs. Terry didn’t try to emulate an eight-year-old, so he didn’t sound at all like Harrison Chad on the cast album, a prudent choice for this reading-stage style presentation, adroitly stage directed by Corey Mitchell. He and the other younger members – the three Thibodeaux siblings and The Radio – had their music down pat, thanks to some good hard work and, I suspect, that cast album.
Yes, the dramatis personae included some inanimate objects that brought Caroline’s basement domain quirkily to life, often with a gospel flavor. Dani Burke was Caroline’s Washing Machine while Maya Sistruck, Dominique Atwater, and Kayla Ferguson were The Radio, even more amazing when they harmonized than when they soloed. Among these kitchen accouterments, Tyler Smith was the king of appliances as The Dryer in an electrifying performance, Tesori’s score starting him off with a mix of street shout, yelped with Porgy and Bess gusto, and R&B that he crushed into the depths of his velvety bass baritone – with The Radio providing backup.
More of Kushner’s fanciful universe turned up outside of Caroline’s basement. Much to our delight, Smith returned to the row of lecterns at centerstage as The Bus taking Caroline and her friend Dotty home from work, but Brittany Currie often lurked on the side as The Moon, emblematic of change. The change that Noah leaves in his pants isn’t the only change Caroline struggles with. Although $30 a week isn’t enough to get by, it’s Dotty who is resolved to do something about it, going to night school in an effort to better herself.
So it’s both Dotty’s energy and initiative at the end of a long workday that irritates Caroline. Watching Veda Covington as Dotty, bragging that her daytime employer is actually proud of what she’s doing, I found myself a little irritated with both women, Dotty for needling her friend and Caroline for her unremitting sullenness. Currie as The Moon was a somewhat soothing presence crooning about change, but there was also a wisp of sultry sensuality in her vocals, very effective in this cabaret setting.
Mitchell had the races sitting at opposite sides of the stage when they weren’t at the lecterns, accentuating how little they actually interact during this musical. It’s mostly Noah and stepmama Rose who show an active interest in Caroline. Although she badly flubbed the Yiddish word for navel, Allison Snow Rhinehardt was an otherwise credible balaboosteh: a little unsure of her footing with both the new stepson and the help, somewhat sensitive to their feelings, yet definitely reveling in her mission to run the household and to command.
Upstairs-downstairs decorum was broken momentarily at the Chanukah party in one of Kushner’s most insightful scenes. Asked to help with the extra party housework, Caroline’s eldest daughter Emmie gets into an argument with Rose’s father about the efficacy of Dr. King’s non-violent civil rights movement. Caroline is outraged by her daughter’s presumption, Emmie is angered by her mother’s inbred meekness, and Mr. Stopnick thinks this is the first real conversation he has had since coming South to visit his daughter. Excellent work here from Frank, TyNia Brandon, and Vito Abate.
I would have been quite content just to witness some local theatre company putting Caroline on its feet after all these years. The fortunate few who attended the February 26 performance saw something far finer. With a minimum of rehearsal, the 17 singers and Tarlton performed nearly flawlessly, all the more astonishing when you consider that the musical director was never in the line of sight of any of the performers even once as they performed this challenging two-hour Tesori score.
Here’s hoping that we don’t have to wait another 13 years before Caroline, or Change is produced here again – and that, when Kushner’s lone musical returns, it will be fully staged in a larger hall for a larger audience in a longer run. As it deserves.