By Lauren Van Hemert
A decade after Part One of the Pulitzer Prize-winning play Angels in America opened on Broadway, Tony Kushner’s semi-autobiographical Caroline, or Change opened at The Public Theater. Kushner co-wrote the show with Jeanine Tesori (Fun Home) and said: “Of anything I’ve ever done, I’m proudest of Caroline, or Change.” It’s a complex, through-sung masterclass in musical theater that defies traditional conventions and challenges its audience. And Justice Theater Project’s production of it exceeds expectations.
The year is 1963 and the winds of change are beginning to blow through Lake Charles, Louisiana. Here, students have torn down a Confederate statue in the center of town. But that story takes a back seat to the breaking news that President John F. Kennedy has been shot. For Caroline Thibodeaux though, change doesn’t come easy. She’s been a maid for 22 years and spends most of her time “16-feet beneath the sea” in the Gellman family’s basement, doing laundry and ironing clothes. Most days her only companions are the radio, washer, and dryer, that is until young Noah Gellman comes home from school and rushes down to the basement to light her cigarette. The bond between Noah and Caroline is a curious one. Noah, who is still grieving the loss of his mother, idolizes Caroline. He dubs her President Caroline and even dreams of what it would be like to run away from home and live with her. Caroline, on the other hand, has more pressing matters to think about, like how to provide for four kids as a single parent. The relationship between the pair is threatened when Rose, Noah’s new stepmother, implements a new rule to teach him a lesson about money. And as Caroline finds out, change, pocket or otherwise comes at a cost.
In this production, Danielle J. Long plays Caroline. Her impassioned, expressive, steady performance billows towards a stunning climax that renders the audience breathless. Vocally, she is at the top of her game, and hers is hands down one of the strongest performances I’ve seen this year. Equally captivating is Kyma Lassiter as Caroline’s progressive friend Dotty, Qualia Holder-Cozart as Caroline’s high-spirited, rebellious daughter Emmie, and Leslie-Anne Ball as Noah’s unsettled stepmother Rose. Additionally, there are some fine, melodic sounds coming from The Radio (Micaela Sanyce Bundy, Lauren Foster-Lee, Germona Sharp), Washing Machine (Maria Barber), and The Dryer (Taufiki Lee), not to mention The Moon (Dr. Joy L. Bryant).
Director Terra Hodge’s well-thought-out staging and music director Jackson Cooper’s attention to timing accentuate key moments. Consistent, straightforward blocking and lighting make the characters, especially the so-called inanimate ones, easily identifiable. Sounds strange, I know. But in a show as complex as this one, the director becomes an interpreter, tasked with not dumbing down but decoding the material in such a way that it’s accessible. Hodge and Cooper have done that admirably. That’s not to say the audience doesn’t bear some responsibility too. Theatergoers who do their homework, i.e., skim through the synopsis, listen to the soundtrack, or even read the libretto, will have an advantage over those who don’t.
Set against the tumult of the civil rights movement, the unresolved way in which Kushner presents issues of race, ethnicity, and class is telling and marginally optimistic. Tesori’s score is contemporary, a hybrid of genres fused together to create a masterwork. And although she is seemingly stuck in one place, Caroline is a strong woman. She effects change not overtly, but in small, subtle ways, a poignant example of how “change come fast, and change come slow, but everything changes.”
Caroline, or Change runs through Sunday, June 23rd. For more information visit: http://www.thejusticetheaterproject.org/.