His mother dead, his father (John Cariani) absent, Noah Gellman (Adam Makké at the performance I attended) relies for companionship on his family’s maid, Caroline Thibodeaux (Sharon D Clarke). She lets him light her daily cigarette, and in doing so lets him believe their relationship is greater than that of employer and employee.
This delicate fiction is disrupted, however, when Noah’s stepmother (Caissie Levy) proposes a solution to his tendency to forget money in his pockets: whatever change Caroline finds, Caroline keeps. Noah starts leaving coins deliberately and, despite some initial resistance, Caroline pockets them. When he accidentally forgets a $20 bill, things get more complicated.
Let’s start with the good: the music in Caroline, or Change is terrific, and Clarke in particular brings the house down. So much for the good.
As for the rest: do we really need a revival of another white-authored work about a Black maid? Despite the title, and despite some political friction with her children, Caroline is hardly the dramatic center of this musical. The book, by Tony Kushner, is certainly not as egregious as, say, To Kill a Mockingbird, and there are moments when he does register the impotence of armchair liberalism: at a Chanukkah dinner, for example, Noah’s grandfather (Chip Zien) predicts an end to “the filthy capitalist chazzerim,” so long as “the Negroes … stop this nonsense about nonviolence.” Tough talk for someone on the sidelines.
Still, the struggle and transformation are Noah’s, and his revelation—that his position precludes the intimacy he seeks from Caroline—should come as a surprise to no one. If one were to ask, “Who is the implied audience here? Who is this musical for?” the only reasonable answer could be, “People like the Gellmans.”
During Broadway’s interregnum, there was a great deal of talk about building a new order, one that centered equity and attempted to reconcile with the profoundly racist history of the Great White Way. Something like Pass Over, I would argue, represents a step in the right direction. Caroline, or Change represents another path, a nostalgic return to the hand-wringing “message” play that so often relies on easy moral questions and a stark contrast between the frothing racists onstage and the well-intentioned white liberals in the audience. Please, let’s make the right choice.
Caroline, or Change runs through January 9th at Studio 54. 254 W. 54th Street New York, NY. 2 hours 30 minutes. One intermission. Photograph by Joan Marcus.