Instead, “Caroline, or Change” is a semi-autobiographical exploration of how the country’s racial dynamics affected an 8-year-old boy named Noah Gellman, his middle-class South American Jewish family, their governess. 39-year-old black Caroline Thibodeaux (played by the stunning Sharon D Clarke) and her three children.
When we first meet Caroline, she’s doing laundry in the Gellmans’ basement. Physically alone, her world seems to come to life when the radio (Nasia Thomas, Nya and Harper Miles), the washing machine (Arica Jackson) and the dryer (Kevin S. McAllister) become characters on stage and give Caroline a sense of camaraderie. and a comfort that she does not share with her white employers.
Public spaces are even more segregated, so she finds a community in the moon (N’Kenge) and the bus (McAllister again), which also speak to her. The richness of Caroline’s life, however, is always an illusion: the gaze through which we understand her story is never hers, but rather that of Noah as he recalls his childhood and his family’s strained relationship. (especially her stepmother Rose) with her during this turbulent time in American history.
To its credit, Kushner’s script never pretends that Noah’s goal is Caroline’s. One of the musical’s most revealing scenes takes Noah’s myopic vision head-on. After Rose (Caissie Levy) tries to teach Noah a lesson by asking Caroline to bring home any “change” she finds in her pockets before washing them, Noah imagines Caroline’s children at home, happy to spend their entire evening thinking about him and how they will spend the money. This satirical twist challenges Noah’s nostalgia, bringing his racial narcissism to the fore. It’s also a perfect counterpoint to Al Manner’s overt liberalism in “Trouble in Mind” and the unrecognized white male privilege he exercises over his cast and crew.
And yet, “Caroline, or Change” still seems incomplete. Not because Noah and Caroline are unable to resolve their conflict or because the turmoil that drives the civil rights movement is signaled by the overthrow of a Confederate statue, but because throughout the series Caroline remains Noah’s fantasy. , and therefore unknowable to us. She is not a fully realized character.
Such a distance, of course, is realistic. Memory is fallible and given their differences, I expected Noah to have very little access to Caroline’s inner life or imagination. But I wanted to see her without an intermediary through her sentimentality, and really on her own terms. Although Caroline is the protagonist of this musical (and Clarke really owns this scene) Caroline is not fully empowered, her agency is limited in the story because it wasn’t really hers in the first place.