Tony Kushner’s Caroline or Change has transferred to the West End after glowing reviews and an Olivier-Award winning start at Chichester and a successful stint at the Hampstead Theatre. With music by Jeanine Tesori, the show was first performed in NYC in 2003 and in London in 2006 and is set in America during the 1960s, a time of significant social upheaval. Michael Longhurst’s revival comes hot on the heels of another acclaimed run for the writer’s best-known work ‘Angels in America’ which ran at the National Theatre in the summer…
This is no way a feel-good musical – hardly surprising when the subject matter is domestic servitude and racial dynamics in civil-rights era America. It also purposely has songs and structures which reflect the dark tonal themes so you won’t find yourself humming them on the way home. They are however delivered with gusto from the professional cast in which the child actors match the adults in strong performances, especially 8-year-old Noah who has a lot of stage time. Through the southern soul sounds and heartfelt gospel we are also regaled with the clarinet and celebratory traditional Jewish music as a contrasting cultural soundtrack.
The musical opens in Lake Charles Louisiana in 1963. The African-American maid Caroline Thibodeaux (played by theatre legend Sharon D Clarke) contemplates her life of domestic drudgery doing laundry for a white Jewish family for $30 a week. We find her in a humid, windowless basement she describes in song as ’16ft Beneath The Sea’, with just a radio and her youngest charge, their only child the friendly Noah, who revels in their secret lighting of her cigarettes (‘The Cigarette’). She sees her life as hopeless and unchanged in the 22 years she has worked in the same house and the appliances – a washing machine and dryer – are centre stage in her solitude as living characters spinning around like some corny American game show prize (‘Laundry Quintet”). The radio also is portrayed as a Greek chorus of Radios 1, 2 and 3 by a trio of black female vocalists whose Motown-style songs illustrate her plight with sweet harmonies. Way up above we have the beautiful glimmering singing Moon (Angela Caesar) who oversees the action.
The main focus is the relationship between Caroline, her employers and her own young family: a feisty daughter and her three sons (one serving in Vietnam). Her employer, the rather neurotic second wife Rose, seems unwilling to offer Caroline a raise so instead offers leftover food or the opportunity to keep Noah’s loose pocket change to teach him a life lesson ironically in looking after money. Noah deliberately leaves change in his trousers which Caroline puts into a cup (‘Quarter In A Bleach Cup’) on the machine and which she eventually puts in her purse, humiliated but out of necessity, for rare treats for her children (‘I’ve Got Four Children’). This bitterness makes her tetchy and finally she lashes out at Noah when he clings to her because he’s unable to bond with his stepmother and is missing his deceased mother (‘Noah Has A Problem’).
By day, Caroline is effectively isolated from her own community which is at the centre of current affairs. On leaving work she meets up with a friend Dotty who innocently asks her how are things while mentioning her boyfriend and attending night school. Caroline is irked by her questions and ambitions and starts an argument about their different lifestyles. Dotty remarks about the strange beheading of a confederate statue in the town (‘Moon Change’) in an uncanny prediction of the real-life American national drama in the South and conviction of a Charlottesville racist killer recently. The women are shocked that the bus delay is due to the news of JFK’s assassination (‘The President Is Dead’). When she tells her daughter of his passing Emmie is unmoved, frustrated that his promises for the black community didn’t materialise.
Inter-racial differences come into focus when Rose’s Jewish family come visiting from NY for Hannukah and Caroline and her daughter find themselves preparing a celebratory meal. A lively discussion around the festive table ensues between the patriarch and Caroline’s daughter about the fate of minorities. Caroline is vexed and a little afraid of her daughter’s vocal protestations, knowing that a raised black voice to a white person could lead to a beating or much worse. She also doesn’t want to lose her job.
Things come to a head when Noah accidentally leaves a $20 bill in his pocket after being given to him by his grandfather and which Caroline keeps. Their row provokes an exchange of racial slurs that elicit an audible gasp from the audience. Caroline disappears from her basement workplace, causing consternation in a household which has taken her for granted, and mistakenly believed they shared a friendship in which there is no equality or choice. Caroline chooses this time to bond with her daughter who explains that she wants something better for her future. In a standout song (‘Lot’s Wife’) Caroline wrings out the emotion dealing with her inner turmoil and faith, the church being the sanctuary that offered hope to the harsh lives black people led. The finale leads to a less than surprising reveal of the generational attitudes of the mother and daughter and a new awareness to the fragile household.
There has a been a decades-long history of Hollywood’s troublesome affair with black maids, from the Oscar winning Hattie McDaniels in the 1940 ‘Gone With the Wind’, to Oscar-winning Viola Davis in ‘The Help’ in 2012. In that period, Oscar-nominated Juanita Moore in ‘Imitation Of Life’ and Whoopi Goldberg in ‘Corrina Corrina’ joined these portrayals addressing America’s complex issues with race and the South. One of the first depictions I can remember as a child is Mammy Two Shoes, the faceless black maid who frequently appeared as one of the only humans regularly featured in the popular long-running cartoon ‘Tom and Jerry’. Like a lot of comic stereotypes of negroes in entertainment at that time she would be roundly scorned right now.
The writer of this musical has said he doesn’t believe there’s such a thing as a non-political play. This one is based on Tony Kushner’s life and it offers a window into literally a nanny state of mind for him and a vast generation of rich American white children growing up where black maids were a constant in their lives and perhaps also a confidante and surrogate mother. What impact did this have on their view of race as adults we can’t glean as Noah is only seen as a young child, and the adults here don’t appear to form any long-lasting alliances outside of employee/employer. The show is to be recommended for depicting a slice of pivotal American social history where black women were the backbone of rich white families in a divided country, and skin colour determined your social status. We are eventually beginning to hear the voices of the women in this hidden world where recent studies show 1 in 25 female workers worldwide is a domestic worker.
Afterwards, a backstage tour and
talk with the cast
We were fortunate to join an after-show interview and brief Q&A with the actors and director who discussed the genesis of the play and how they came to be involved. We also enjoyed an interesting backstage tour, along with dressing rooms and of course I was interested in the props which included a Servis washing machine and a table setting that included plastic and real cooked vegetables.