Theatre review: Caroline, or Change

John Nathan loved the latest production of Tony Kushner's autobiographical musical about a black maid and the Jewish family she works for


It’s not as though he needs the extra work, but the Pulitzer-winning playwright Tony Kushner now also Steven Spielberg’s go-to screenplay writer has a part-time job as a prophet.

Kushner’s first play, A Bright Room Called Day, made the “deliberately irresponsible” comparison between Reagan and the Nazis, and then the day after it opened in 1984 the American president was photographed naively placing a wreath on the graves of SS soldiers in Germany. Then Kushner’s later work Homebody/Kabul, which was in rehearsals when 9/11 happened, contains the line “the Taliban are coming to New York,” and opened just a few blocks away from Ground Zero.

Meanwhile, Caroline or Change, a strongly autobiographical musical, for which Kushner wrote both lyrics and book, resonates with events that are contemporary both to the New York original production, which arrived at the National Theatre in 2006, and this even better new version directed by Michael Longhurst and first seen at Chichester. But more of that later.

The work is set in 1963 in Lake Charles, Louisiana, where the New York-born Kushner was raised. The eponymous Caroline (Sharon D. Clarke) is an African American maid to the Jewish Gellman family. Their only child, Noah, played on press night by the sweet-voiced Aaron Gelkoff, is both doted on and half-heartedly disciplined by his well-meaning stepmother Rose. Her difficult job is to try and replace Noah’s mother who died of cancer, and make her marriage work with Noah’s father who plays klezmer on his clarinet and does little else.

Within this setting, Kushner whose words are set to Jeanine Tesori’s gospel and blues-inspired music tackles such weighty themes as grief and American civil rights. But he does it with bravura invention that gives singing parts to such unconventional roles as the washing and drying machines (Me’sha Bryan and Ako Mitchell respectively), and the radio that keep Caroline company in the Gellman’s airless basement.

It’s an impeccably acted and beautifully sung show, and both of these qualities are no better embodied than by the superb Sharon D Clarke’s Caroline.

As even Rose acknowledges, Caroline, a pitifully poor single mother of three children, is paid “bupkis” for her toil. And, with a default facial expression set almost permanently to granite-hard, and a singing voice that gives hair-raising expression to all that suppressed resentment, Clarke transmits the defiance and injustice of not only her condition, but of being part of a generation for whom the abolition of slavery has brought little relief.

The town’s big news is that a statue commemorating the Confederates has vanished. And when Caroline warns that white anger is going to bring trouble, our minds flash back not to 1963, but to last year and the Charlottesville Rally which brought America’s neo-Nazis out on to the streets. They were opposing the removal of a statue of a Confederate general. Kushner the prophet again.

But it is the relationship between Noah and Caroline that generates the evening’s drama and considerable tension. Noah keeps leaving change in his pocket. Rose teaches him a lesson by telling Caroline she can keep what she finds when she does the washing. The temptation to take it and the proud instinct to leave it, tears Caroline apart. And it is here that Kushner evokes the complex and paradoxical in the Jewish relationship to American civil rights.

The Gellman’s Chanukah dinner is served by Caroline and some extra hired “black” help. This includes her more militant daughter Emmie (another terrific performance by Abiona Omonua) who finds herself arguing with Noah’s step-grandad (Teddy Kempner) despite his declared empathy for the civil-rights cause. The heated exchange is a distillation of the distance between two communities that should be on the same side.

For the Gellmans, justice for oppressed African Americans is indelibly linked to justice for Jews. But, for Caroline, the family that underpay her can only ever be keeping exploitation alive.

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