Theater Review: “Caroline, or Change” Reflects How Far We’ve Come – and How Far We Haven’t – Regarding Race

By Christopher Caggiano

 The first Broadway revival of this challenging 2004 musical makes a sincere but ultimately unpersuasive case.

Adam Makké and Sharon D Clark in Roundabout Theatre Company’s production of Caroline, or Change. Photo: Joan Marcus

After 18 painful months of empty theaters, dark marquees, and precious little income, Broadway is now gradually getting itself back up and running. In addition to productions both old and new, you can also see plenty of face masks and COVID vaccination cards. Ushers walk up and down the aisles gently reminding patrons to keep their masks over their noses as well as their mouths.

Quite a few Broadway productions — most notably the high-profile musicals Frozen and Mean Girls, and the much vaunted revival of West Side Story — chose not to return after the COVID hiatus. Other productions that were set to open or were in previews — including a Broadway transfer of the Off-Broadway hit Hangmen and the umpteenth revival of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? — opted to close rather than resume.

Ambitious producers are now taking advantage of available theaters and bringing in a slate of shows that perhaps might not have made it to Broadway before COVID, many of them featuring Black performers and related subject matter, including Pass Over, Chicken and Biscuits, and Thoughts of a Colored Man.

Unfortunately, Pass Over closed after only two months, and Chicken and Biscuits has announced an early closure after shutting down for over a week due to breakthrough COVID infections in the cast. Thoughts of a Colored Man is scheduled to run through March, but right now it’s hard to know whether the show is selling, because the Broadway League has broken with its longstanding tradition of publishing individual show grosses in favor of reporting the total grosses for all shows.

All of this is context for the Broadway return of a rather challenging and unlikely musical that explores the Black experience, Caroline, or Change, which features music by Tony-winner Jeanine Tesori and book and lyrics by Pulitzer Prize- and Tony-winner Tony Kushner. (Produced by the Roundabout Theatre Company through January 9, 2022, at Studio 54 on Broadway, 254 West 54th St). The revival was already scheduled to open on Broadway before COVID hit, but now it sits amid these new Black-themed shows as a point of comparison for how scripts about Black people have changed — and haven’t — since Caroline, or Change first hit Broadway in 2004.

One obvious difference is that the new plays are all by Black authors, while Caroline was created by two white people. In fact, Caroline is part of a long line of progressive musical shows — from Porgy and Bess to Dreamgirls — written by well-intentioned white people presuming to portray the struggles of Black people in America. You might think that today’s increasingly woke theater community might provide some push-back regarding whether Caroline, or Change is Kushner’s and Tesori’s story to tell. Of course, both have established their progressive bona fides in their respective bodies of work. Caroline also addresses the Jewish experience, and features half a dozen white characters, but it’s definitely worth considering whether, if the show had been written today, there might have been more controversy.

Caroline, or Change relates the story of a 39-year-old Black woman in 1963 New Orleans. Caroline works as a maid for a Jewish family, barely surviving on her salary of $30 a week. The family she works for comprises Stuart Gelman, a morose and ineffectual widower, his chirpy and nervous second wife, Rose, and Stuart’s son Noah from his first marriage.

Sharon D. Clarke in the Roundabout Theatre Company’s Caroline, or Change. Photo: Joan Marcus

After his mother’s death, Noah becomes fixated on befriending Caroline, much to her displeasure. Noah has a bad habit of leaving change in his pockets, which Caroline finds when she is doing the family’s laundry. To teach Noah a lesson about the value of money, Rose tells Caroline that she can keep any money that she finds. We sense that Rose is also trying to assuage her white-liberal guilt, seeing an opportunity to help Caroline out without actually giving her a raise. This ostensibly kind but condescending gesture wracks Caroline with guilt and ambivalence (“A grown woman got no business taking pennies from a baby”), and eventually breaks the uneasy truce that all the characters have tacitly agreed to.

Caroline is a woman caught between eras. The Civil Rights movement is on the rise, but Caroline remains mired in the dehumanizing habits of Black subservience. This sets up the rather forced double meaning of “change” in the show’s title: pocket change and its tantalizing possibilities juxtaposed with the frightening proposition of breaking free from societal and emotional shackles.

One way that Caroline foreshadows contemporary Black drama lies in its focus on the subtle prejudices of white liberals as opposed to the rantings of fulminating bigots. One of the themes of more recent plays, such as Jeremy O. Harris’s Slave Play and Jackie Sibblies Drury’s Pulitzer Prize–winning Fairview, has been that white people who think they are allies but haven’t yet earned that moniker are as much a part of the problem for contemporary Black people as the flat-out bigots. It’s not enough to have your heart in the right place, these plays seem to say; you have to do the work and turn your good intentions into conscious antiracist action.

Still, Caroline, or Change is a show that’s as tough to love as its central character. Just like Caroline, the script resists all efforts to embrace it. Just when you want to connect, it pushes you away. This was likely intentional, but it makes the show hard to warm up to. Kushner’s characters are complex and layered, as is Tesori’s often thrilling score. There are no discrete protagonists or antagonists per se, just flawed, complicated people doing their best to navigate a difficult time. The musical focuses on dramatizing the experience of a troubled woman at a difficult point in her life — without resorting to platitudes or pat resolutions. That’s admirable, but it makes for a discomfiting viewing experience. We want to root for Caroline, and indeed for Caroline, but they both seem hell-bent on making that impossible.

Sharon D. Clarke gives a remarkably restrained performance as Caroline, perhaps a bit too restrained. The show ideally should build to Caroline’s cathartic 11 o’clock number, “Lot’s Wife,” in which she finally vents all her pent-up feelings of anger, frustration, and despair. Unfortunately, the production doesn’t really build to that moment. The pace feels meandering, particularly in Act Two, and doesn’t work up enough momentum to give the number its full weight.

Christopher Caggiano is a freelance writer and editor living in Boston. He has written about theater for a variety of outlets, including, American Theatre, and Dramatics magazine. He also taught musical-theater history for 16 years and is working on a number of book projects based on his research.

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