Tony Kushner’s ‘Caroline, or Change’ questions assumptions and roles.
Tony Kushner’s plays don’t skirt complex topics—they thrive on them. The multiple award-winner of “Angels in America” tackled race relations in 1999’s Tony Award-nominated “Caroline, or Change.”
Set in 1963 in Lake Charles, Louisiana, the musical tells the story of Caroline, a black maid for a Jewish family, the Gellmans, whose young son, Noah, has strongly bonded with her. The civil rights movement is rocking the country, JFK is assassinated, and her own
family and friends can’t understand her choice to “remain” a maid, but Caroline endures.
So why the choice of this challenging work for the reopening season of the Ripple Theater? “The Creative Leadership Board was having dinner and brainstorming about the types of shows we wanted to produce. Each member had mentioned plays with social, religious, racial, sexual orientation, themes,” explains Mario DeAndre Brooks, the show’s assistant director and stage manager. “It’s important to me as a person and as an artist to not exclude voices from the table. So I proposed [“Caroline”], because I had come across it researching another show and just fallen in love with it. As it turned out, many board members are fans of Tony Kushner, and apparently, so am I.”
For most young people, including some actors in the show, the era depicted in the play seems like ancient history, yet it was vital the cast understand its consequences. “At our very first rehearsal, we had a talk about what was occurring in the country,” says Brooks. “I researched the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which takes place a year after the start of ‘Caroline’…we talked about the Little Rock Nine, JFK as a martyr figure, who Bull Connor was, etc. I also compiled a list of books, films, documentaries, and musical theater from or about th
e time period. It was important to me to not just give them sources of information about the African American experience, but also the southern Jewish experience with ‘The Atlanta Trilogy’—a series of plays and a musical written by Alfred Uhry. [We also discussed] the experience of being a single mother and a divorcee at that time.”
Asked how he sees the character of Caroline, Brooks doesn’t hesitate. “Caroline is totally a hero. This woman has been through it all and she doesn’t have the luxury of falling apart. Extraordinary people are not just the people who save the day. They are the unsung persons who sacrifice and pave the way for the people coming behind them.”
As a city, Chattanooga continues to struggle with racial and income inequ
ality, so does this play have particular resonance here? “Absolutely,” says Brooks. “In 2014, I still get stopped and questioned outside my apartment, because I ‘fit the description.’ I know exactly what it’s like to have to make do when your income is not enough to cover your needs. But it [‘Caroline’] also speaks to gender inequality. The Paycheck Fairness Act was voted down again for the third time since 2012. We’re voting whether or not abortion is protected by our state constitution. These are not new issues.”
As usual, in rehearsal, questions have popped up about how to address the characters. “How far can you push someone who cares about you, until you reach the breaking point? Caroline’s employers appreciate and love her. They consider her a friend, and yet, s
he can’t accept it,” says Brooks. “She doesn’t want their help, or their friendship, because she knows what it’s like to lose things. If hope is built, it can only be dashed. And race relations were so volatile then, you couldn’t trust your white allies to consistently be on your side. So there is a lot of ‘acting out’ in this play, from both Caroline and Noah, to see just how far you can push someone who adores you, before they push back.”
A play like “Caroline, or Change” is designed to be thought-provoking. Brooks is well aware of that, yet, as he puts it, “We want our patrons to walk away feeling empowered to have the conversations that must be held. We want them to think that it’s OK to grieve, but not to let that emotion consume your entire life. We want people not to allow discomfort, complacency and fear choke their spirit from growing, because God can make the ugliest situation a testimony.
“After all,” he concludes, “unlikely friendships can be forged in the face of change.”
“Caroline, or Change” opens Nov. 7 at the Ripple Theater, 3264 Brainerd Rd., and plays 7:30 p.m. Fri-Sat and 2:30 p.m. Sun through Nov. 23. For tickets and more information, visit rippletheater.com