In 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I Have A Dream” speech during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom; four black girls were killed in the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing by members of the KKK; JFK was assassinated; and in the musical Caroline, Or Change, a hardworking black maid (played by R&B artist Jully Black) works for $30 a week for a Jewish family in Lake Charles, Louisiana, uninterested, or more likely scared, to have dreams, to make change in her life, even though doors are finally opening for African-Americans after the decade-long Civil Rights Movement.
Running at Toronto’s Winter Garden until Feb. 15, as part TD Black History Month programming, Caroline, Or Change was written by Lake Charles-raised playwright and screenwriter Tony Kushner (book and lyrics) and scored by New York’s Jeanine Tesori, originally having its debut Off-Broadway in 2003 and on Broadway in 2004, and features a range of musical styles from soul to blues, spirituals to klezmer.
The Musical Stage Company and Obsidian Theatre first mounted the show in Canada in 2012 and walked away with four Dora Awards and three Toronto Theatre Critics Awards. This limited 16-show return is again directed by Robert McQueen, with musical direction by Reza Jacobs and choreography by Tim French.
The plot is a simple one: widowed clarinet player Stuart Gellman (Damien Atkins) has remarried his late wife’s best friend Rose Stopnick (Deborah Hay), who becomes stepmom to grieving son, eight-year-old Noah (Evan LeFeuvre). Noah is drawn to Caroline, who is “stronger than my dad,” and enjoys hanging with her in the basement, lighting her daily cigarette. When he keeps leaving change in his pocket, Rose tells Caroline she can keep it, a central dilemma in the story.
Interestingly, inanimate objects — the washing machine, dryer, radio, and bus — are all personified, singing characters to provide context and revelations, including The Moon, played gloriously by famed opera singer Measha Brueggergosman.
Black, who appeared in Da Kink In My Hair at the Princess of Wales Theatre in 2005, is outstanding as the no-nonsense, unsmiling, “always mad” Caroline Thibodeaux toiling away in the Gellman family’s hot basement doing laundry and ironing in order to provide for her four kids. The 39-year-old single mom has been a domestic for 22 years, she reveals in song.
While Caroline wants to give her kids a better life, she doesn’t take any steps to do so, except her decision whether to keep that change or not. While her friend and fellow maid Dotty Moffett (Alana Hibbert) takes college courses at night, Caroline isn’t interested. She’s no closer to change as she is to her dream of kissing Nat King Cole. She’s accused of “losin’ courage, you losin’ light, lost your old shine, lost Caroline.”
But in her outspoken daughter, Emmie Thibodeaux (Vanessa Sears), we see that the work and courage of the Civil Rights Movement has given the 16-year-old hope and dreams — for a big house, a car, a TV set — and the guts to participate in activism, even if her way isn’t as peaceful as the late Dr. King.
For fans of Black — who incidentally has a new single out, Mi No Fraid —Caroline, Or Change is a chance to see the R&B star in a different setting, showing off her remarkable vocal range, and sinking her teeth into a complicated acting role that touches on bravery, dreams, self-respect, protest, faith, compassion, connection, greed and hate.
Tickets for Caroline, Or Change are available here