Caroline, or Change plays out in a backwater Louisiana town in 1963, at the traumatic time of President Kennedy's assassination. But beginning with its very first lyric "Nothing ever happen underground in Louisiana/'Cause they ain't no underground in Louisiana/There is only underwater" this ambitious musical is a veritable hurricane of resonance and immediacy. Original and provocative, it begs to be seen by anyone who craves something outside the conventional norms of musical theater.
The embittered Caroline Thibodeaux has spent more than half her life as a housemaid. Now she's employed by the Gellmans, a Jewish family that pleads poverty but surely has some money, because "this house got a basement," a rarity in southern Louisiana. Caroline retreats to the basement, where her only allies are a washer, a dryer and a radiio, all of which come to life. And why not? This libretto, written by Tony Kushner (and drawn from his own youth), is instilled with the same boundary-breaking imagination that infuses Angels in America. There, a hallucinating wife finds herself in Antarctica; a man afflicted with AIDS imagines himself in Heaven. In the world according to Kushner, it's no surprise that appliances, or even the moon, should sing.
Caroline, who has been dragged down by the past, finds it difficult to keep up with the present changes brought about by the civil-rights movement. When her activist daughter complains that white people don't care about "the black man," Caroline chastises her to "say colored or negro, like you was raised up to." She is only at ease with eight-year-old Noah Gellman, "so shy, a hug could break him." They are kindred spirits, for Noah also is confused by the changes at home. His mother has died of cancer, and he is alienated from his new stepmother, Rose, an outsider from New York.
But now change becomes an even more literal part of the plot. In order to teach Noah to stop leaving coins in his trousers, Rose instructs Caroline to keep any pocket change she finds. For a woman who makes a paltry $30 a week, nickels and dimes are a dangerous lure. "Give him a whupping," Caroline implores. "I don't want to take pennies from a baby." But take them she does, and the story spins off into a tale of temptation worthy of Faust.
There's so much going on here, so many parallel and contrasting themes Jew vs. black, young vs. old, have vs. have-not, pragmatist vs. idealist that the evening is a mother lode of substance and ideas. But admirable as Caroline, or Change is in intent, this joint production by the Black Rep and HotCity Theatre is not without its flaws.
In creating a basement, Jim Burwinkel's scenic design places Caroline in a hole in the forestage. That works well enough. But the living room is not on the main stage; it's suspended on stilts, a location that restricts movement and distances the actors in one of the evening's key scenes. An even more significant problem from where I was sitting, anyway was that far too many lyrics were far too unclear. Not all the blame can be laid on the Grandel Theatre's acoustics, because the solos were easy to follow. But more care needs to be paid to the ensemble numbers.
Fortunately, what's most important in the story is what works best on the stage. At heart Caroline, or Change is a triad connecting Caroline, Noah and Rose. All three actors excel. Anita Jackson is a volcanic Caroline. Through most of the evening she smolders. But when she erupts, run for cover. Her epiphany of self-awareness ("Don't let my sorrow make evil of me") is a blistering howl. As young Noah, P.J. Palmer is a model of clarity and simplicity. Palmer has a thin reed of a voice, yet every time he opens his mouth he commands the audience's rapt attention. As Rose, Bethany Barr succeeds in eliciting empathy in a mostly one-dimensional role.
Ultimately this tale of grief in its various manifestations is deeply stirring, but it takes a long time and a lot of patience to get there. God forbid that anyone should suggest to Tony Kushner that he restrain his flights of fancy. At the same time, one senses that underneath all the excesses that adorn Caroline, or Change, there's a less dense, even more involving musical yearning to breathe free.