“Nothing ever happens underground in Louisiana”.
The year is 1963. Caroline, maid to the Gellman family, works hard in a sweltering basement, washing and drying the family’s clothes, for just $30 a week – with only the washing machine, dryer and radio to keep her company. With four children of her own to provide for, Caroline is told she may keep whatever loose change 8 year old Noah leaves in his trouser pockets. However, when Noah accidentally leaves a $20 bill, Caroline faces a moral dilemma – does she take the money? After all, Christmas is coming up, and she’d like to be able to treat her children. Or does she return it to Noah, the boy with whom, despite appearances, she has formed a considerable bond, bringing them together everyday to share their daily cigarette?
In a time of change and revolution, Caroline’s basement-world remains a constant – she works tirelessly, doing as she has always done. So the real question becomes, does she continue to do so? Or does she embrace the winds of change, that are taking place on both a personal and national level?
Michael Longhurst directs Tony Kushner’s ‘Caroline, Or Change’, a Chichester Festival Theatre production that, after considerable acclaim, transfers to the West End’s Playhouse Theatre. An Olivier Award-winning musical, featuring an incredible score from Tony Award-winning composer Jeanine Tesori, ‘Caroline, Or Change’ is a powerfully moving production, a very heartfelt and real look at the need for progress and for positive change, in times of division, oppression, and revolution. This is a show that will ‘stroke your soul’.
This production is simply littered with powerhouse performances from its particularly strong ensemble. Sharon D. Clarke is unmissable as Caroline Thibodeaux. Her performance powerful, passionate and pained, she bears the strength and dignity of a life burdened by worry and turmoil, but tinged with the necessary endurance to carry on. Naana Agyei-Ampadu puts in a very impressive performance as Dotty Moffett, her deep and rich vocals striking. The entire cast give voice to the oppressed, their raw and authentic performances highlighting the strength of those segregated and persecuted, but shrouded in an uplifting and heartfelt sense of hope.
Jeanine Tesori’s soulful music – consisting of blues, classical, and Jewish folk – is so inherently emotive and, coupled with Kushner’s lyrics, highlight the power of music and of song in translating such serious and affecting topics into a sound all can hear, and pay heed to, through it, allowing the oppressed minorities to non-violently, but not altogether passively, vocalise their stories.
Fly Davis’ set design recreates the skeletal structure of an American residency in the 1960s, though this house is one of only a few to have a basement, we are told. This basement dominates the stage, submerging the audience in Caroline’s world. An upper storey has been created, towards the back of the stage, on which, on the left hand side, hangs a telephone from the wall, sandwiched by a lampshade and television set, whilst on the right hand side, is Noah’s bedroom, complete with bed, set of drawers, even a dinosaur-shaped lamp. Early on in the production, this backdrop divides in two, creating a distance between the two halves of this set. This early division seems to mimic the divisive times in which the musical is set, times not unlike our own today.
In the production, there is a reference to the Gulf of Mexico. A metaphorical gulf – a split, a division. Just as there now exists this gulf, this distance, between the two halves of the set, we are told throughout the production of peoples cleft in two, creating this separation, or more accurately, a segregation – one that exists between races, nations, and religious groups. We see such divisiveness on an individual level, in terms of Caroline’s inner turmoil, and moral conflict – on a familial scale, with the distances present in the Gellman household, and on a national scale – a gulf between races, and nations.
These divisions exist within the Gellman family unit – we learn that Noah’s mother passed away sometime ago, but her death still very much hangs over the family, including new wife, Rose, who was her best friend. Noah’s father, Stuart, has not been the same since the death of his first wife, an event which appears to have torn the family apart. He is distant, and very rarely carries a conversation, unable to fulfil his role as husband and father. Instead, he spends most of his time playing the clarinet. He and Noah have grown apart, establishing a distance between them. And though new wife Rose tries her best with Noah, tries her best to rekindle a sense of familial unity, the two have yet to form an attachment, Noah instead choosing to spend his time with Caroline. This leaves us to wonder whether the set will ever be joined, reuniting a family cleft in two, by the death of a woman who, it seems, held everything, and everyone, together, once more able to create a sense of unity within the Gellman family.
Such division also exists on a larger scale – division between races, nations, religious groups, and even across generations. The production not gives us a sense of the divisions between Black Americans and White Americans, but it also opens a window into the kind of divisiveness that exists across minorities, whilst also hinting at a generation war, with differences of opinion between mother and daughter. For instance, during the Gellman family’s celebration of Hanukkah, Caroline’s outspoken daughter, Abiona Omonua‘s Emmie, and Teddy Kempner‘s Jewish Mr Stopnick, Rose’s father, get into a discussion about the effectiveness of violent and non-violent protest. Both are members of minorities, both have been, and are being, oppressed, with both groups continuing to be so today, but their opinions here could not be more different. Although establishing a rather tense atmosphere at this otherwise formal dinner party, however, Mr Stopnick afterwards declares this to be the best conversation he has had whilst down in the South.
Caroline’s reaction to her daughter’s sudden outburst highlights the differences between the generations, and their differences in opinion regarding how to cope with certain situations surrounding such topics. The young Emmie is proud, active, and vocal in her stance, standing up and speaking out for what she believes is right. Caroline, on the other hand, keeps her head down, displaying an inner strength, quietly bearing her crosses and, whether she shares her daughter views or not, she conducts herself in an altogether different manner, telling her daughter to ‘hush [her] mouth’. However, we know she is not trying to quieten her daughter – she is merely fearful of the consequences.
There is a wonderfully fantastical element to this production, as the domestic appliances down in the basement come to life. The washing machine, radio and dryer sing with Caroline and interact with her, acting as narrators when telling her story. Caroline spends so long down here, is so used to her life, of which these appliances have become such a huge part, they have become real to her. They are humanised, personified, and the cast utilise the mechanical attributes of these appliances, and weave them into the fabric of their performances. Me’sha Bryan’s washing machine frequently vibrates, as though on a cycle, blowing bubbles across the stage. The glamorous Dujonna Gift-Simms, Tanisha Spring and Keisha Amponsa Banson harmonise as the radio set, sporting aerial headgear, tuning in to the action on stage. Ako Mitchell’s dryer is, according to Caroline, created by the Devil himself and, adorned in red, often appears as a a seductive tempter. Despite at one point comparing the basement to a kind of hell, it also appears as though it has become a solace for Caroline, a place in which she is safe, used to everything, a place of comfort and reassurance. A place where, despite revolution in the air outside, all in her basement continues as it was. Nothing ever changes – as though on a spin cycle, Caroline is going round and round in circles, trapped in this little bubble – but change is coming.
This sense of similarity and circular motion is further enhanced by way of the revolving set. Despite the changing times outside, Caroline’s life stays the same. There is no linear movement, in either direction – her daily life consists of going round in circles – washing, drying and ironing, even down to her daily cigarette with Aaron Gelkoff‘s charming Noah. Even for the Gellman’s, life is monotonous. Alastair Brookshaw‘s patriarch Stuart Gellman spends most of his time playing the clarinet, lamenting the death of his wife. Lauren Ward‘s Rose Gellman spends her time trying to form a relationship with Noah, and cooking healthy food. For most of these characters, it is business as usual. Life goes on. However, with the news that President JFK has been assassinated, and a new era, under George Washington will begin, this cycle of monotony is broken. It is clear that change is needed. However, living in times of great change today, we can relate to these characters, over a shared sense of uncertainty about what the future will hold. Today, 55 years after the production is set, we often find ourselves trapped in these similar never-ending cycles, cycles that have no beginning and no end, going round and round in circles. However, the productions stands to show just how easily such cycles can be broken – and why they should be.
Kushner’s lyrics frequently refer to water – to being underwater, and to floods. After all, “nothing ever happens underground in Louisiana. There ain’t no underground in Louisiana. There is only underwater”. This reference to being underwater gives us the sense that many of our characters are drowning – the oppressed, drowning in a ‘sea of mud’. These lyrics also make one think of a quote from Shakespeare’s ‘Julius Caesar’ – “There is a tide in the affairs of men”. The natural ebb and flow of the tide offers a time lapse, and with time, comes change. The gravitational pull of the moon has an effect on the changing of the tide, and the moon is a vital presence in this production. Angela Caesar’s dazzling moon is often lowered from the ceiling, an omnipotent force, as though a herald of change. As mentioned, the production is set during a time in which the affairs of mankind are changing – within the transition period between two presidents. What will the era of Washington mean for US citizens? What will it mean for Caroline, and for her family? We learn that President JFK has promised to advance the cause of Black Americans and, though slow to do so, had provided them with some small glimmer of hope. His assassination brings with it a period of unrest and social and political upheaval, which, as audiences today are all too aware, can be deeply unsettling. We are living today in times of great change, in a world so divisive, fickle, and delicate, unsure of what is to come.
It is as though we, like the characters in this hugely resonant production, are sitting at the water’s edge, our feet dangling in the water. The question is, will we be washed ashore by the tide, our feet planted on sturdier ground? Or will we be carried away by the current, and washed out to sea? Will the tides of change advance, or retreat? Will they triumph and prosper, or be defeated, by the monotonous cycles of oppression and misery?
As the title suggests, the subject matter discussed within this play affects, not just entire peoples, but individuals. The use of the conjunction, “Or”, in the title, suggests that Caroline has two choices. She can continue to be Caroline, her name identifying all that she is, standing as a testament to all she does and continues to do, and quite possibly, is expected to do. She can continue going round and round in circles, like a piece of laundry in a washing machine, turning and turning, but getting nowhere. She can continue to groan inwardly that, at her age, she is still a maid, bemoaning her lack of aspirations and shattered dreams. Or, Caroline can change. She can embrace the change that is going on around her, the change taking place outside the hellish comfort of her basement. Caroline comes to realise that, change must come, on a personal level, as well as a large-scale, national level.
Perhaps the most important lesson to take away from ‘Caroline, Or Change’, from this stirring incitement to acknowledge, embrace, and stand for change, is that:
“Change come fast, and change come slow…
…but change gonna come”.