Tony Kushner and Jeanine Tesori’s beautiful 2003 musical charts the moral crisis of a black woman working as a maid for a Jewish family in Louisiana in 1963.
Women’s anger has taken center stage. As the midterm elections crawl into view, pundits across the country are evoking the visceral rage of female voters as a wind that could upend the status quo and usher in a brighter new day. It’s impossible to forget about this when watching director Lili-Anne Brown’s stunning new revival of Caroline, or Change, the divine 2003 musical by Tony Kushner and Fun Home composer Jeanine Tesori. But the fury of Caroline Thibodeaux, played by the brilliant Rashada Dawan, doesn’t spur her to greater things. It’s a millstone around her neck, dragging her down toward a swampy bayou grave.
Caroline is a 39-year-old black woman in 1963 Louisiana. A divorced mother of four—her oldest son has already been shipped to Vietnam—she earns just $30 working as a maid for the Jewish, middle-class Gellman family. She has plenty to be angry about, and Dawan lets flames lick at the edges of her performance; her quiet burn is just waiting for a gust of oxygen to ignite it. But the inferno it threatens is a self-immolation.
Kushner based Caroline, or Change on his own childhood in Lake Charles, Louisiana. It is a domestic drama buffeted by larger currents of a society on the brink of upheaval: a teapot in a tempest. At the urging of her employer, Rose (the fantastic Blair Robertson), Caroline is encouraged to keep the spare money that she finds in the pockets of Rose’s stepson, eight-year-old Noah Gellman (a wonderful Alejandro Medina), when she’s doing laundry. She takes this petty cash reluctantly at first, then starts to see it as rightfully hers.
There’s more to the story than that, of course, including a prescient subplot about toppling confederate statues and an insightful look at privilege. Noah is convinced that he and Caroline are friends, but her feelings towards him are laced with wariness. Working long hours alone in the Gellmans’ sweltering basement, Caroline has no company but her appliances, which Kushner and Tesori bring to life as celestial god-and-devil figures. (Kushner has never met a banality he couldn't instantly elevate to the realm of myth.) Tyler Symone plays the heavenly washer (and later the moon), and Micheal Lovette is the Mephistophelean dryer; Roberta Burke, De'Jah Jervai, Emma Sipora Tyler are Caroline’s radio, embodied as ’60s girl group.
In the hands of a superb cast and a knockout offstage band (led by Andra Velis Simon), Tesori’s elastic, multi-hyphenate score leaps from playful to profound to haunting to hilarious with an abandon matched only by its precision. Three performers must be singled out in addition to those already mentioned: Bre Jacobs, a young actor to watch, as Caroline’s strong-willed and free-spirited daughter, Emmie; Michael Kingston as Rose’s bombastically Marxist, thank-God-he-didn’t-have-Twitter father; and Nicole Michelle Haskins in a brash, vibrant turn as as Dottie, Caroline’s fellow maid and sort-of friend.
Change does not come easily for Caroline. Her anger can only ever be turned inward; it can consume but never cleanse. The most she can accomplish is a shift in perspective, not circumstances. But her self-erasure creates a space for others to rise. In Emmie, the hope for a more lasting kind of change burns bright.
Firebrand Theatre in partnership with Timeline Theatre Company. Music by Jeanine Tesori. Book and Lyrics by Tony Kushner. Directed by Lili-Anne Brown. With ensemble cast. Running time: 2 hours; 30 minutes. One intermission.