Suite Caroline

Tony Kushner (book and lyrics) and Jeanine Tesori (music), Caroline, or Change (directed by Michael Longhurst, Playhouse Theatre, London)

I was lucky enough to catch a day-long double bill of Tony Kushner’s extraordinary Angels in America at the National Theatre in 2017 and was intrigued enough to want to see Caroline, or Change at Chichester… but I’d only discovered it was on a day before it shut and evidently missed the transfer to Hampstead. A transfer to the Playhouse, Northumberland Avenue, seemed like a good bet and I would need to be in London on the day of one of the performances anyway.

The Caroline of the title is Caroline Thibodeaux (Sharon D. Clarke), a thirty-nine year-old Black maid with four children — the eldest fighting in Vietnam — who works for the Gellmans in Louisiana in November 1963. Her employer, Rose Stopnick Gellman (Lauren Ward), is the second wife to Stuart Gellman (Alastair Brookshaw), a clarinetist and stepmother to the eight-year-old Noah; Noah, unfortunately, seems more attached to Caroline and is clearly still mourning his mother. When Rose decides to teach Noah how to be responsible for his money — telling Caroline she can keep any change she finds in the boy’s pockets in the laundry — she inadvertently sparks a crisis connected to the impoverished Caroline’s pride.

CarolineSo the change of the title is two-fold: the nickels and dimes of the trouser pockets and the change in the air in segregated America in the 1960s. At the start of the musical, a Confederate statue stands centre stage, but this is vandalised (offstage) by persons unknown and at the start of the second half only the feet and the plinth remain. There is a growing tension between the peaceful civil rights movement and a more radical shift, stoked here by Rose’s father (Teddy Kempner) at a Hanukkah meal where Caroline, her daughter (Abiona Omonua) and her friend Dotty (Naana Agyei-Ampadu) are serving. And it shouldn’t be a big dig into historical memory to note that the setting in contemporaneous with the assassination of John F. Kennedy.

Angels in America‘s strength and weakness as a play is its grabbag of ideas and viewpoints in its search for a state of the nation representation of 1980s and 1990s America, still oddly relevant in 2017. Any allusion to homosexuality is deeply hidden in the musical — but it should be noted that Kushner would have been eight or thereabouts in 1963 and had moved to Louisiana with his clarinetist father and his basssoonist mother. Jewish practices are displayed, rather than debated here, although some of the politics of assimilation and prejudice come into the mix. The positions of Blacks in America a century after the Civil War form much of the fabric of the musical, with Caroline asserting that everything save the clothes dryer was made by God.

That dryer and the washing machine are the central props of the play, in a curious cellar to a house in a town that has no cellars; it is also personified by a male singer (Ako Mitchell) who is plainly meant to be Satanic, and who doubles as the bus/bus driver and Caroline’s absent husband. The washing machine is also personified (Me’sha Bryan), with the radio appearing as a Motown-style trio (Dujonna Gift-Simms, Tanisha Spring and Keisha Amponso Banson) and the Moon (Angela Caesar) a reassuring woman floating in the upper section of the stage frame. Such fantasies seem natural from a playwright who had angels in his most famous work.

The musical is almost all sung through, mostly in soul, gospel, Motown, blues and spiritual styles, with some Jewish-style (Klezmer) music as well for the Gellmans, with some quotes of Christmas classics (which may well have been written by Jewish composers). Clarke is clearly the powerhouse at the heart of the work, with Noah threatening to steal the show and Omonua strong as the rebellious daughter. However, somewhat like other contemporary musicals I’ve seen, the tunes were hardly memorable. The ending(s) offer more optimism than I’d expected, but the underlying politics of inquality, alas, still feel relevant.

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