Photo by Bella Muccari.
Reviewed by Ryan Max
Caroline, or Change is a musical about the Civil Rights Movement that isn't really about the Civil Rights Movement. True, it is set in 1963 Louisiana and centers on a white family's miserable black maid. But Caroline lacks the obvious villains, segregationists and fire hoses that have come to signify the fight for civil rights. In place of a Good vs. Evil battle for men’s souls, the script (by Tony Kushner) provides an ever-shifting balance of allegiances and emotions. Can we blame petulant Noah for manipulating Caroline, or is he just a lonely young boy that lost his mother? Or is stubborn, prickly Caroline the source of her own ills, even though her stubbornness is inseparable from the stability that shields her family from the worst of Southern racism? Park Slope's Gallery Players chose a perfect time for this alluring revival which shows how painful change can be, even for those it is intended to help.
Caroline is the maid to a left-leaning family of Jewish transplants from New York City. The family consists of a young boy, Noah, his clarinet-obsessed father, and his father's new wife (Noah’s mother recently died of cancer). The new wife’s attempts to ingratiate herself to Noah and Caroline ignite much of the play’s conflict, demonstrating the show’s ability to distill tension even from banal or well-intentioned attempts at change. All the while Noah's father sits idly playing his clarinet, and Caroline—Noah's preferred replacement for his mother—grows ever more bitter as she toils away for too little pay.
Mr. Kushner brilliantly uses the unfolding conflict to open our eyes to an unexpected victim of change: those who have found a way to survive in lousy circumstances. And Caroline, played gloriously by Teisha Duncan, is the perfect example. She works for a sympathetic but unhelpful family (Noah starts getting an allowance even after they say they can’t raise her $30 a week salary). She can't afford to take her kids to the dentist, and she left her husband long ago. But people around her are ready for change. Her joyful teenage daughter is intoxicated by the messages of the burgeoning Civil Rights Movement. But her daughter's anger, however just, seems to Caroline like a dangerous waste of time. A fellow maid who goes to college and wears fancy shoes strikes the white-clad Caroline as too flashy. To her, change is not necessarily synonymous with progress; change can just as easily mean forgetting who you are or needlessly risking your way of life—it may not be ideal, but at least it's surviving.
Despite being deeply contradictory, facets of character like Caroline's stubborn dignity, her daughter's fiery idealism, and Noah's callow machinations each command our sympathy at one time or another. And Caroline, marvelous Caroline, stands at the crux of these codependent and competing attitudes. Her daughter would not have the luxury of idealism without her mother's hard work (something she realizes in a beautiful moment when she affirms "My mother is a maid" with palpable pride), but if Caroline stands up to her employers’ condescension, she could imperil her own family’s well being. The puzzle of these shifting allegiances and irreconcilable views makes for a viewing experience endlessly more rewarding than the black and white dramas we reasonably expect from stories about the segregationist South. When Caroline finally snaps under the pressure of these competing aims, its makes for a visceral, mesmerizing solo performance by Ms. Duncan, the sort rarely matched in theater today.
The format of the play, performed on Edward T. Morris’ three-tiered stage, blends the action organically, and the lighting is skillfully handled by Mike Billings. The music, by Jeanine Tesori, makes many strong moments even stronger by bypassing the intellect and cutting straight to the gut. Use the restroom during the intermission and you're sure to hear someone humming the tune that closes out the first half.
Caroline is very good—great, even—but falls just short of perfect. Though the acting and writing sidestep many of the pitfalls that stud the path of such an iconic period and its cliché-heavy characters, it is not a play that is concerned with illuminating its specific circumstances. It is a story about "Change" in the wider sense almost more than it is about "Caroline," but it is Caroline that gets the more skillful rendering; the stock characters still have a hard time transcending their circumstances and by show’s end, change, and how we are supposed to feel about its wonderful and frightening effects, is still just a vague notion.
Caroline, or Change (2 hours; One Intermission)
The Gallery Players Theatre (199 W. 14th St., Brooklyn, NY)
TICKETS: $18; $14 Seniors and Children Under 12 (www.ovationtix.com)
PERFORMANCES: Through Feb. 21; Thu-Fri 8 PM, Sat 2 and 8 PM, and Sun 3 PM