In the autumn of 1963, change was in the air in the southern United States. The civil rights movement was underway in Georgia and Alabama – but less so in Louisiana, the setting for Tony Kushner and Jeanine Tesori’s Caroline, or Change.
In this production (a West End transfer for the Chichester Festival Theatre production, via a stop-off at Hampstead Theatre) Sharon D Clarke plays Caroline, a maid to a Jewish family, the Gellmans. Paid a paltry $30 a week, Caroline cannot afford any niceties for her children. So when 8-year-old Noah Gellman keeps leaving loose change in his pockets when she does the laundry, his stepmother tells Caroline she can keep the money.
Clarke is the epitome of repressed emotion here, a fearsome, unsmiling woman who refuses to accept that her best friend is an 8-year-old boy who is leaving change in his pockets deliberately. Instead, she finds refuge in the Gellmans’ basement, where the electrical appliances sing to her.
This indulgence of fantasy will be familiar from Kushner’s magnum opus, Angels in America. His penchant for mixing the political with the personal and the magical works particularly well within the musical theatre genre. For her part, Tesori brings a sense of musical cohesion, along with a canny knack for writing melodies that demand much of the children in the cast, just as with her work on Fun Home.
Many of Tesori and Kushner’s demands fall upon the shoulders of Aaron Gelkoff’s Noah (in a role he shares with Jack Meredith and Isaac Forward). Gelkoff lends Noah an ebullient, precocious and sympathetic air that contrasts well with Clarke’s stoicism.
It is the people around this pairing who enrich the show. Abiona Omonua, in particular, shines as Caroline’s daughter Emmie. Where Clarke’s Caroline lives within the strictures of domestic servitude, within the confines of an unequal society. Emmie is the change that Caroline feels she cannot be.
A side plot about the desecration of a statue of a Confederate soldier has gained extra relevance in the years since Kushner and Tesori first wrote Caroline, or Change. These monuments to a segregationist America were often constructed in the early 20thcentury as an attempt to hold back the tide of civil change, and the threat of their removal now has brought out organisations whose white supremacy and anti-Semitism hang over this musical like demons to be vanquished.
After a row with Noah in which both of them exchange anger-fuelled racial slurs, Clarke delivers the mother of all eleven o’clock numbers with “Lot’s Wife”, a plea to God to release her from earthly desires.
But true to the title, change is something that is external to Caroline. While Clarke’s monumental performance culminates in a final, welcome and long overdue display of affection, the strength in Kushner and Tesori’s work is in showing that the big changes occur between generations.
The arc of the moral universe may be too long to fit within a single musical, but Caroline, or Change offers a glimpse of how its slight bend towards justice affected families in 1963. And that, above all, is the key to why it is so affecting in 2018.