Some performances tell an entire story unto themselves. Sharon D Clarke delivers one such stunning star turn in this revival of Caroline, or Change, propelled onto Broadway by her acclaim in its previous London run. With an earth- and rafter-trembling embodiment of the title character, Clarke animates a curious — and at times troubling — musical with undeniable life.
When Caroline, or Change first premiered at The Public Theater in 2003, a white creative team spinning a narrative that purportedly centers a Black woman may have raised fewer eyebrows. After all, Dreamgirls had done it times three. But from the moment young Noah Gellman (played by Jaden Myles Waldman at the performance reviewed) refers in the opening number to “Caroline, our maid,” it’s clear whose perspective the story actually inhabits.
That would be a young Tony Kushner, for whom Noah is a clear stand-in. The musical, presented here by Roundabout Theater Company, was inspired by Kushner’s boyhood in Lake Charles, Louisiana, and impressions of his family’s Black maid. With a genre-blending score by the always-inventive Jeanine Tesori, Kushner offers a characteristically oblique skewering of middle-class Jewish liberalism via a family who considers their Black help through the lens of how much she needs them.
“Change” is a double reference to the loose scratch Noah leaves in his pockets, at first absent-mindedly and then deliberately, for Caroline to find in the laundry. It’s also a gesture to what’s on the horizon of the Civil Rights Movement and Caroline’s seemingly stubborn obstinance toward advancing her station.
“How come you’re so sad/and angry all the time?” Noah asks her. We’re meant to cringe, at least a little, at the boy’s insensitive naivete. But it’s not clear the story has particularly convincing insights on that question.
Caroline, who expresses herself mostly in troubled backstory, certainly needs money. Her kids, including the eldest, a radiant Samantha Williams, and two young boys, adorably played by Alexander Bello and Jayden Theophile at the performance reviewed, very much like to buy things. Caroline is also proud. She had a great love, but he all-too-predictably resorted to violence and left her alone.
Except, of course, for the inanimate objects that are Caroline’s frequent companions, puzzlingly personified as Black through song. There’s the radio (Nasia Thomas, Nya, and Harper Miles) and washing machine (Arica Jackson) in the dank basement where Caroline spends her days, the bus (Kevin S. McCallister) that carries her tired body home at night, and the moon (N’Kenge) that washes over her sorrows.
All are gorgeously sung here, welcome vehicles for immensely talented performers, and of a piece with the musical’s unconventional glow of childlike wonder at the world. But where Noah and the Gellman family, including his reticent, clarinet-playing father (John Cariani) and self-consciously well-meaning mother (Cassie Levy), telegraph human subjecthood, Kushner’s Black characters are primarily built from penury, weariness, or plastic, metal, and dust.
Caroline’s spirited daughter, beautifully played by Williams, would be a more impactful exception were she central to the story rather than circling its periphery; her epilogue insisting “you can’t hold on, you Nightmare Men” feels like a hasty coda.
Director Michael Longhurst’s production does well to allow Clarke to blaze at its center, on a too-literal upstairs-downstairs set by Fly Davis, whose costumes do more impressively imaginative work, both in simple understatement and in opulent drape and shimmer. The onstage orchestra, raised at either side, swells the bayou setting with a rich and humid atmosphere.
Caroline’s greatest sorrow, it turns out, is eventually losing her temper on a privileged boy who treats her like the family dog. Clarke knocks the musical’s 11 o’clock number, “Lot’s Wife,” absolutely past the Milky Way and into another plane of being. However stirring the lament, Caroline still had every right to put the little punk in his place.
It may be just as well to close your eyes, at least for a moment, as Clarke’s performance outstrips the story, to imagine a world where Caroline can breathe — and do more than just count her coins — in peace.
Photo credit: Adam Makké as Noah Gellman and Sharon D Clarke as Caroline Thibodeaux in Roundabout Theatre Company's Caroline, or Change. (Photo by Joan Marcus)