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What Three Broadway Shows Tell Us About Racial Progress

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 Jewish American Southern family, their 39-year-old Black housekeeper Caroline Thibodeaux (played by the breathtaking Sharon D Clarke), and her three children.

When we first meet Caroline, she is doing laundry in the Gellmans’ basement. Physically alone, her world seems to come alive when the radio (Nasia Thomas, Nya and Harper Miles), the washing machine (Arica Jackson), and the dryer (Kevin S. McAllister) become characters onstage and provide Caroline with a sense of camaraderie and comfort that she does not share with her white employers.

Public spaces are even more segregated so she finds community in the moon (N’Kenge) and the bus (McAllister again), who speak to her as well. The richness of Caroline’s life, however, is always illusory: The gaze through which we understand her story is never hers, but rather that of Noah’s as he reminisces on his childhood and his family’s (especially his stepmother Rose’s) fraught relationship with her during this turbulent time in American history.

To his credit, Kushner’s script never pretends that Noah’s lens 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 take home any “change” that she finds in his pockets before she washes 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 turn challenges Noah’s nostalgia, putting his racial narcissism front and center. It is also a perfect counterpoint to the professed liberalism of Al Manner’s from “Trouble in Mind” and the unacknowledged white male privilege that he wields over his cast and stage crew.

And yet, “Caroline, or Change” still feels incomplete. Not because Noah and Caroline are unable to resolve their conflict or because the unrest driving the civil rights movement is nodded to through the toppling of a Confederate statue, but because for the entirety of the show Caroline remains Noah’s fantasy, and thus unknowable to us. She is not a fully realized character.

Such 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 longed to see her unmediated through his sentimentality, and truly on her own terms. Though Caroline is the protagonist of this musical (and Clarke really does own this stage), Caroline is not fully empowered, her agency limited in the story because it was not really hers in the first place.

Circassia News

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