Caroline, or Change
nytheatre.com review by Dan Kitrosser
February 5, 2010
My Aunt Elaine once said, "The only plays that interest me are the ones about black people suffering. I just can't care about anything else." So perhaps she and my uncle Steve were the perfect dates to the powerful Gallery Players revival of Caroline, or Change, the Tony Kushner-Jeanine Tesori operetta about Jewish guilt and the Civil Rights movement. Set in Louisiana in 1963, the play tells the story of Caroline, a 39-year-old African American divorcee with four kids of her own, who spends her days in the basement of the Gellman household, cleaning their laundry and sharing cigarettes with their nine-year-old boy, Noah, who idolizes her. Noah's mother died from lung cancer and his father remarried a New Yorker, Rose Stopnick, whose guilt about having a poor black maid drives her to create a game: any time Noah leaves change in his laundry, Caroline can keep it. Hinged on such a small conceit and with only a handful of characters, Kushner's musical is epic—it travels across racial, economic, and religious divides. And housed in the comfortable yet intimate home of The Gallery Players and with a cast that pounds the stage with vigor and vibrato, this production is explosive.
At the beginning of this play, we are a hundred years past slavery, yet the dynamic between the whites and the blacks feels just as harshly economic. Caroline, played with a vibrant ferocity by Teisha Duncan, folds laundry while the Washing Machine (the hilarious Marcie Henderson) gyrates, the Radio (Heather Davis, Markeisha Ensley, and Nikki Stephenson) sings Motown pastiche, and the Dryer (Frank Viveros) adds more heat and volume to the already Hades-like basement. The Washing Machine, Dryer, and Radio are all commodities, things to be bought, sold, worked, and broken, and, like Caroline, they are written for and played by black actors. It is very telling that in Caroline's big breakdown aria "Lot's Wife" in the second act, Caroline begs God to "Murder my dreams so I stop wantin'." The pain in not having things, the pain of dreams deferred is mammoth, and it is a pain that the middle-class Jews she works for cannot understand. By the end of the number, with Duncan's face stained with tears and running mascara, her voice hoarse and body trembling, the room erupted into applause—we were in debt to her for such a cathartic performance. Duncan churns out the difficult score (which relies heavily, almost relentlessly, on her alone) with both grit and grace. Caroline is not likeable, but through Duncan she is loveable, and we need to love her as we navigate this trying play.
Helping us along the way is Edward T. Morris's unit set, which takes us everywhere we need to go with ease. The lighting design, by Mike Billings, works well at times, especially when the mood changes within a scene (the red-hotness of the Dryer stands out), but at other times, actors were simply out of the light.
The cast seems uniformly excited to be in this production and for the most part they hold their own. As Rose Stopnick, Eileen Tepper is empathetic and hilarious, and gives real humanity to her character as she is the one trying to navigate the awkward space where the Jews and Blacks share. As Noah, Daniel Henri Luttway is adorable and acts his way earnestly through this difficult score.
All of the black characters are grappling with the concept of change, and under the direction of Jeremy Gold Kronenberg these actors are effectively sincere. Caroline, our tragic heroine, resists it. Dotty, her one-time friend, a maid in her own right who now attends community college, is embracing her possible elevation to the middle class. Beautifully acted by Ellisha Marie Thomas, Dotty sings to Caroline, "You got to let go of where you been / You got to move on from the place you're in." Caroline's daughter Emmie doesn't think change is coming fast enough, and as portrayed by Elyse McKay Taylor (whose voice manages to be both pure and honest throughout the show), we feel Emmie's yearning.
It was bothersome to me that Kronenberg pushed the secondary Jewish characters in this production to become caricatures. When Rose's impetuously Marxist father comes down South to visit, he engages Emmie in a real debate about non-violent passive resistance. But played so over-the-top by Bill Weeden, we discount his perspective. The other grandparents, as played by Gael Schaefer and John Weigand, charming as they are, are even flatter. 1963 housed the first real generation of the Jewish middle class, 20 years earlier many of them were still living in tenements or were just coming over from Europe. While it is true that Kushner's libretto makes it easy to ham up the Jewish characters (pun intended, and achieved, thank you!), and though the Gellmans are comfortable now, these Jews were not far away from the struggle and the strife of the lower class, and that is what makes this play especially potent. It cheapens the conflict to discount half of the perspectives.
But, I suppose, of the many things this play is about, it is most surely about Jewish guilt. And seated in a largely white audience at The Gallery Players in Brooklyn, next to my radically progressive uncle and aunt, I certainly felt as though I had to do something right then and there about the disparity between the races, the classes, the sexes. The Gallery Players' production of Caroline, or Change lives up to Kushner's theatre, theatre that can engage us so emotionally and then push us so politically.
There are two competing anthems that are echoed several times throughout Caroline, or Change. One is that "Change come fast, and change come slow, but change come." The other is that "They ain't no underground in Louisiana, there's only under water." It is bittersweet that in our century, both anthems are true.