Off Broadway (and sometimes Broadway) Reviews and Information.

Thursday, October 28, 2021

Caroline or Change – It’s not “The Help”, the Musical

From the name of the play to the poster image of Sharon D Clark singing her heart out, I came into the play blind, assuming it would be a message of 1963 empowerment. And it is about empowerment and race relations, but the type that is found internally, not externally.

Caroline is played by Sharon D Clark and is fantastic. Caroline is a maid in Louisiana in 1963. Her relationship with the white, Jewish family she works for is brittle and borderline antagonistic. She does have a soft spot, will hidden, for the son – Noah. I saw Jaden Myles Waldman in the role, one of three boys sharing the role, he was excellent as well.

Caroline with the Radio's chorus and the Washing Machine's bubbles,

Noah’s mother has passed and his father has married a long time family friend, Rose. Noah doesn’t feel close his step-mother, because he still mourning his mother.

Caroline, and her basement domain, are a rock of stability in his life. As for Caroline, the basement is her domain to let her self, even just a bit. In the basement the washing machine, radio and dryer come to life and sing to her. The voices are fun and fresh (and sexy when dryer Kevin S. McAllister enters the song). It’s here that she finally allows herself a short mental diversion from her life.

But real life happens on leaving that small world. She is short with her friends, like Dotty. In a post-work discussion, while waiting for the bus, Caroline turns angry at friend Dotty Moffett (Tamika Lawrence) who is going back to school, dressing white and generally trying to improve her station in this environment. Angry because she isn’t going anywhere soon. She is angry towards her children, not for anything she does, but as a reminder of what she cannot deliver.

Caroline is stuck. She is stuck working for the Gellmans, underpaid and removed from the family. She has to use here few funds at home to take care of the family. She is stuck alone with a missing husband she adored and takes care of her three children without quite enough money to afford any extras for her or her children.

At work, Caroline empties the pockets of the family’s clothes before washing them, and turns the money over to Rose each day. Rose needs to increase Caroline’s salary without her husband’s knowledge and to teach Noah the value of money. So she asks Caroline to keep the change she finds, and this way teach a lesson to Noah. Noah, hearing this conversation, leaves money in his pocket for Caroline, who refuses to take it originally. She changes her mind when her children need money for treats or medical help.

Noah and Caroline (Sharon D Clarke) in the Basement

Around the country the world is changing. John Kennedy’s death occurs but the Black characters wonder what will happen with JFK’s promise to help them, assuming the worst.

At the Hannukah Dinner, Noah’s grandfather, Chip Zien, preaches the Socialist revolution in comments to Caroline. He sees this moment in history as a possible turning point for both Blacks and Jews. But Caroline sees these as just a further promise that she knows isn’t true. But the dinner scene illustrates another truth. Caroline, her friend and daughter serve the family. It is a reality that doesn’t seem to occur to the grandfather. It plays on the dynamics of the Jewish and Black struggle for respect.

The title then refers to the internal struggle Caroline sees as the line between work and charity. She has created a safe space for work. The loose change signifies her struggle between taking care of her family on this low salary or taking a little extra by taking change from a child of the family she works for.

But the power dynamic between her and the child Noah is altered by leaving change for her. Noah doesn’t understand the problem and Caroline’s emotional distance. The whole she leaves in his world is hard for him, but he will outgrow it. The world for Caroline is hard, even with the change and she knows she will not outgrow it.

The contrast and power of the Jewish family versus Caroline and her friends shows itself in the lecture that Chip Zein delivers to Caroline. He never asks question, only delivers the truth as he sees it.

As for Noah, has a step-mother whom he doesn’t like and a father who literally cannot communicate. Dad plays the clarinet constantly – making music was something he and Noah’s mother did while she was alive. This devotion to music and lack of devotion to his family is felt by his new wife, and by Noah.

Caroline or Change isn’t a straightforward story. Caroline doesn’t change into a warm hearted surrogate mother. The distance the father puts between himself and the family is similar to the distance Caroline puts between herself and the Gellmans.

Directed by Michael Longhurst, Caroline or Change is shot full of fantastical imagery and moments consistent with Tony Kusher’s vision. A vision that is both literal and allegorical at the came time.

Caroline or Change
Directed by Michael Longhurst |Story by Tony Kusher |Lyrics by Tony Kusher and Music by Jeanine Tesori | Cast: Sharon D Clarke, Cassie Levy, John Cariana, Tamika Lawrence, Chip Zien

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