Caroline, Or Change is Tony Kushner’s Olivier Award-winning through-sung musical.

Premiering in London’s Lyttleton stage, National Theatre, in 2006, it’s world premiere was off-Broadway in 2003, followed by a Broadway run in 2004. This production follows a critically acclaimed 2017 revival at the Minerva Theatre, Chichester, transferring to the Hampstead Theatre, London, earlier this year.

Synopsis: Louisiana, 1963. Revolution is in the air, though not so much for Caroline (Sharon D. Clarke), the poorly paid maid toiling endlessly in the sweltering basement of the Gellman household. Noah rushes home from school to find Caroline with only the electric washing machine (Me’sha Bryan), dryer (Ako Mitchell) and her portable radio (trio Tanisha Spring, Dujonna Gift-Simms and Keisha Amponsa Banson) for company. It’s a fantastical, magical place amidst the piles of laundry and singing washing machines, especially for eight-year-old Noah Gellman who sneaks downstairs to see her whenever he can. Caroline, Or Change is described as a deeply moving portrait of America at a time of momentous social upheaval, set to an uplifting and profound score of soul, blues, classical and traditional Jewish folk music.

Caroline, Or Change promises “unforeseen consequences”, and there is much made about the changes, fast and slow, happening in Lake Charles and wider America. On first viewing, you may experience everything you are expected to – awe, inspiration and ‘changed for the better’, as white privilege in the ‘land of opportunity’, made possible by the subjugation of Jim Crowism, are bravely laid side by side in the starkest of terms. But, coming back to it, or maybe as a black woman in the current climate, the flaws now seem more obvious.

Described as an intensely personal work, Kushner (films Munich, 2005, Lincoln, 2012, August Wilson’s Fences, 2016, and play/TV miniseries Angels in America, 1991/2003) admits to having been inspired by an incident from his past. He was born in 1956 New York to Jewish parents – a clarinetist/conductor father and bassoonist mother, who moved to Lake Charles, Louisiana in his infancy.

Sharon D. Clarke and ensemble in Caroline Or Change.

Photo Credit Helen Maybanks
Sharon D. Clarke and ensemble in Caroline Or Change.
Photo Credit Helen Maybanks

It was meant to be shocking — it would have been very daring in 1963,” Kushner said in August 2017 after the violent Charlottesville culmination of nationwide Confederate monument removal/relocation campaigns. Interestingly, in October 2012, a 7-foot, 200+lb, patriotic Statue of Liberty yard ornament was stolen from Allen and Anna Thibodeaux of Lake Charles Louisiana!

As is common for many produced black perspectives (Dreamgirls, 1981/2006, The Secret Life of Bees, 2001/08, The Long Walk Home, 1990, The Help, 2009/11, to name a few) it feels like this author also seems to lack personal experience from which to write the black perspective. It matters, because whilst Africans have endured enforced intimacy with Europeans, the reverse is not true, and whilst they live the advantages, the plight of the disadvantaged is rarely internalised as personal to them.

So whilst we are provided with constant insight into the inner thoughts of Stuart, Rose, and Noah, Caroline still remains somewhat of a mystery. Despite Michael Longhurst’s innovative direction (Amadeus, Constellations, The History Boys). He brings Caroline’s traditionally inanimate singing companions to life in performers who stalk the stage, enlivening the scenes with clever movement, and perhaps removing some of the unintentional comedy of talking appliances. They do, occasionally overpower the presence of Caroline herself. She maintains a stillness reflective of America’s paralysis in fulfilling the promise of a ‘land of the free’ and ‘we the people’, and a soul still very much in the grip of loss. That said, when the remarkable Sharon D. Clarke sings, she is the only thing which fills your senses.

Lauren Ward and Sharon D. Clarke in Caroline Or Change at Playhouse Theatre

Photo Credit: Helen Maybanks
Lauren Ward and Sharon D. Clarke in Caroline Or Change at Playhouse Theatre
Photo Credit: Helen Maybanks

A black perspective told as fantasy by a white author like this, means that choices and balance don’t always sit well. Aspects we might wish to alter remain unchanged, as we are presented with the limitations of the author’s cultural re-imagination and guilt. Ultimately, the architect of much of the ensuing uproar, is the only character who really gets what they want with very little consequence. The African American characters, Caroline included, merely get to appreciate what they always had, making do with their poor circumstance with a little less sadness and resentment, and maybe a little more consciousness. Noah selfishly gets what he needs. By its first workshop in 1997, the overt political statements, questioning the intent of JFK and the offense of Confederate monuments feel a little misplaced more than “very daring in 1963”, whilst the town’s outraged backlash to the desecration of the monument turns up missing.

Jeanine Tesori’s through-composed score utilises spirituals and blues for the African Americans and the washer, dryer and bus characters; Motown for the radio, classical for the Moon and Stuart’s clarinet; Jewish klezmer/ folk music for the Jewish characters. In chorus, it can overwhelm at times. But, Clarke doesn’t disappoint, managing to convey the depth of her exhausted existence, mostly with her voice alone. She gets surprisingly few showstoppers, but the Sunday Morning/Lot’s Wife segment late in the second half is well worth the wait. Her star turn is well-supported by the standout performances of the Radio trio of Spring, Gift-Simms and Amponsa-Banson.

Bryan’s washing machine, provide equal parts sass and wisdom without descending into stereotype, along with Mitchell’s dryer. He absolutely nails the paradox in the seductive luxury of a labour-saving device vs. the literal Underworld-like torture of the heat and humidity it adds to the Louisiana basement’s heat and humidity. His Bus wails the bass grief of Kennedy’s assassination and the death of some measure of hope that virtually the whole Western world experienced for decades. Angela Caesar’s Moon is beautifully whimsical, somehow tinged with the nocturnal silver light of her role. The remaining cast give strong supporting performances, more than rising to a hugely demanding production with some difficult transitions during its 29 Act I and 25 Act II separate numbers!

Caroline or Change runs for 2 hours and 30 minutes (including interval), from 20th November 2018 to 9th February 2019, 7.30pm at the Playhouse Theatre, and there are lots of deals for tickets to be had online, so there’s no reason to miss it!