Playhouse Theatre, London – until 6 April 2019
Caroline, or Change is a curious show that sees a five-star cast deliver distinctly flawed material. Set in an early 1960s Louisiana.
Sharon D. Clarke plays Caroline Thibodeaux, an African-American maid employed by the (Jewish) Gellman family. Caroline is low paid and hard working and Tony Kushner and Jeanine Tesori do a fair job in sketching out the prejudiced, poverty trap that blighted the South’s African Americans – a situation that some may argue continues to the present day.
Where Thibodeaux, we learn, has three growing children for whom she heroically and proudly provides on little more than a hand-to-mouth basis, the Gellman household is a desert of dysfunctionality. Noah (played by the confident and cool Jack Meredith on the night of this review) is nine years old. With his mother having passed away some time back, the boy is now being raised by father Stuart and step-mother Rose (Lauren Ward).
Kushner goes on to suggest an intriguing, but ultimately fragile, bond between Noah and Caroline as the child seeks and apparently (so we are led to believe) receives, emotional succour from the matriarchal maid. Noah despises Rose, leaving Stuart reduced to little more than an (oddly) clarinet playing non-entity. The reed playing offers a possible musical twist but as an easy nod to perhaps a hint of klezmer in the score, it’s an unusually lazy touch from Tesori. Rose rarely strays from an angst and kvetch-ridden neurotic, while the Gellman grandparents offer little more than superfluous stereotypes.
In their portrayal of the African-American characters, however, the writers soar. Caroline listens to the radio – itself embodied by three beautifully soulful singers, while the bus that she takes to and from her work is also given a living soul. And one only needs a moment’s recollection of Rosa Parks to recognise the clunking symbolism of the bus in the narrative.
Technically it is not just Clarke who is award-winningly magnificent. Ako Mitchell as The Dryer and The Bus is, as ever, on fine form, while Abiona Omonua as Caroline’s daughter Emmie is another vocal star.
But taking a step back, one can see that Kushner and Tesori, possibly burdened by their white privilege, have deified Caroline and her community, while monstering America’s Jews on both sides of the Mason Dixon Line. In Rose’s petty fussing over Noah’s inability to recognise the value of even the smallest amount of loose change, she embodies one of the oldest anti-semitic tropes in the book: that of the Jew as mean and penny-pinching. It is (thankfully) not often that such a potentially hate-filled stereotype is played out on stage.
In his musical Parade, Jason Robert Brown offered a passionate yet dignified exploration of the South’s capacity to hate both Jews and people of colour. Kushner lacks that dignity offering us instead his own personal expiatory, prompted possibly by a personal conflict with his Jewish heritage? In today’s world of increasing hatred Kushner might have done better to have worked his issues out in the therapist’s chair, rather than impose them upon the theatregoers of Broadway and the West End.
Booking until 6th April 2019