Upstairs, Downstairs | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

Upstairs, Downstairs 

Race, class, and religion clash in a Louisiana laundry room in Tony Kushner's operatic musical.

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Caroline, or Change Court Theatre

In Driving Miss Daisy, Alfred Uhry's play about an elderly Jewish widow and her African-American chauffeur in civil rights-era Atlanta, a contentious employer-employee relationship grows into a loving bond. Caroline, or Change—another drama about southern Jews and blacks during the 1960s—is made of sterner stuff. In this extraordinary operatic musical—written by Tony Kushner, composed by Jeanine Tesori, and receiving its Chicago premiere at Court Theatre—the characters' attempts to love each other, and themselves, are imperfect at best, shaped by unequal conditions of race, class, religion, and age as well as by personal pain. Where Driving Miss Daisy focuses almost entirely on the interactions of Miss Daisy and her driver, Hoke, Caroline, or Change traces a complex web of relationships within and between two families, one black and one white. Conveyed with sorrow, irony, and compassion in equal measure, this tale offers no warm and fuzzy solutions.

Set in Lake Charles, Louisiana, in late 1963, the show focuses on Caroline Thibodeaux, a black, illiterate, 39-year-old divorced mother of four making $30 a week as a cleaning lady. Caroline is stuck in a rut and sinking—depressed and sullen, disappointed with her life, acutely aware of her social inferiority, and angry at herself for letting things get to their current state. A churchgoing Christian who believes that God "makes everything as a test," she seems to be a pillar of strength. But that strength comes at a cost. Afraid to give in to weakness and despair, she refuses to admit her vulnerability.

Though her employers, the Gellmans, are by no means rich, they're well enough off to have brand-new Maytags in their basement. There, in that hot, airless space, Caroline does the laundry—a chore that includes digging loose pocket change out of dirty pants and scrupulously depositing the coins in a cup to return to her boss. Her companions are the radio—represented by a black female vocal trio a la the Shirelles—and the washer and dryer, played by a black woman and man. These five singing storytellers give the show the quality of a musical folktale. Where a more realistic depiction might convey the grinding physical discomfort of Caroline's situation, Kushner and Tesori's fanciful approach attunes us to Caroline's emotional state.

Caroline also has a regular visitor: Noah, the Gellmans' eight-year-old son, who adores her, failing to perceive the sadness underneath her stubborn strength. Noah vastly prefers Caroline to his parents—Stuart, a clarinet player, and Rose, a transplanted New Yorker he married after Noah's mother died of cancer.

Stuart mourns his first wife even as he tries to make a life with his new one, and Rose tries to put up a brave front even though she doesn't really feel she belongs.But naturally, Noah comprehends none of this. So when Rose tries to assert her parental authority by teaching him financial discipline, he makes a game of her rules. Scolding Noah for leaving loose change in his dirty clothes, Rose decrees that from now on Caroline can keep whatever money she finds. Noah—a sweet kid with a bratty streak—starts leaving more change in his pockets, to see what will happen. He actually hopes Caroline will keep the money, thinking that will bond him to her and her own kids.

Rose's policy is an unintended insult to Caroline, of course, and it puts her in a quandary. "My kids could go down to the dime store and get the shiny junk they make to catch a kid's eye," she sings as she wrestles with whether to keep the cash. "Some weeks I could even tithe at the church." As she starts pocketing the change, her anger festers and spreads like the cancer that killed Noah's mother.

Caroline's crisis intensifies after Noah's stepgrandfather gives him $20 for Hanukkah. When Noah accidentally leaves the bill in his pants pocket, Caroline must decide whether to keep or return it. Her choice will impact the friendship-that's-not-a-friendship with Noah, as well as her relationship with her own children and with herself.

Though racial injustice is an essential element of the story, at heart Caroline, or Change is about parents and their children. Noah, alienated from his dad and stepmom, regards Caroline as a surrogate for the mother he lost. Stuart and Rose are distressed at Noah's emotional withdrawal but afraid to impose themselves on him. Caroline's rebellious teenage daughter, Emmie, resents her mom's second-class status and shocks Caroline by using the term black instead of Negro or colored. Neither Noah nor Emmie comprehends the depth of the loneliness that separates Caroline from them.

This fable is set against a backdrop of turbulent social transition, represented by the assassination of President Kennedy—"friend to the colored, friend to the Jew," the distraught chorus sings—and the mysterious desecration of a local memorial to Confederate soldiers. The biggest flaw in Caroline, or Change is Kushner and Tesori's failure to fully integrate these events into the emotional fabric of the tale: since the audience never sees them, they don't seem as important as they're surely intended to be.

But when director Charles Newell draws our attention to the characters and their emotions, the work achieves a rare potence. In the past, Newell and music director Doug Peck have collaborated on stripped-down rethinkings of big, old-fashioned Broadway musicals like Guys and Dolls and Carousel; this production compellingly, sometimes even magically, brings the same thoughtful, challenging perspective to offbeat material.

Kushner's libretto, based on an incident from his own childhood, is clear and simple, with rhymes that could have come out of a children's book. On its own it might seem insubstantial, but it's a perfect foundation for Tesori's expressive, wide-ranging score, which shimmers in Peck's sensitive new chamber orchestrations. Tesori fuses the jagged melodies of modern opera with American black idioms—blues, R&B, gospel, field hollers—as well as Christmas carols and klezmer music. There's not a hit song to be heard, but the music is so well fitted to the story that it hardly matters.

Local stalwart E. Faye Butler combines vocal virtuosity with deep inner life as Caroline. Here, as in her portrayals of Ella Fitzgerald and Dinah Washington at Northlight Theatre, she brings volcanic power and impeccable musicianship to bear on a character of both towering strength and weary weakness. But Caroline, or Change is by no means a star vehicle. It's a richly textured ensemble work, beautifully played by a superb supporting cast. Particularly strong are Melanie Brezill as Emmie; Kate Fry as Rose; Jacqueline Williams as Caroline's friend Dotty, struggling to understand the source of Caroline's hatefulness; Dennis Kelly as Rose's preachy armchair-radical father; and soprano Harriet Nzinga Plumpp as the moon, gliding across the stage in a white satin gown.

Some of the most impressive work comes from the kids in the cast. As Caroline's young sons, Micah Dejon Williams and Donavan Epison (who alternates with Gregory Franklin) excel in the difficult, contrapuntal choral number that climaxes the first act. With wicked humor and a campy flair, sixth grader Malcolm Durning (alternating with Jack Mulopulos) is a confident central presence in the musically demanding role of Noah. These highly professional youngsters are crucial to the success of the show. Caroline, or Change is a memory play, a regretful and reflective remembrance of the past. But it also heralds the future—the promise and trauma of social, economic, emotional, and even spiritual death and renewal.v

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