‘Caroline, or Change’ examines civil rights era from unique perspective




“Caroline, or Change” will gets its Mahoning Valley premiere when it opens Friday at the Youngstown Playhouse for a two-weekend run.

The musical was written by Tony Kushner (“Angels in America”) and received a Tony Award nomination for Best Musical in 2004. Its music was composed by Jeanine Tesori (“Fun Home,” “Shrek”).

“Caroline” is set in the sleepy, and mostly Jewish, community of Lake Charles, La., in 1963.

Caroline is an African-American maid employed by the Gellmans, a Jewish family. A single mother of four who longs for more but is trapped by her circumstances, she develops a fragile and beautiful friendship with Noah, the 8-year-old Gellman son.

Noah’s stepmother, Rose, can’t afford to give Caroline a raise, but lets her keep the money that Noah leaves in his pockets when she does the laundry.

The action inside the home comes amid the burgeoning civil-rights movement, with change pressuring the Deep South.

Caroline is played by Sonya M. Gordon, who is making her Playhouse debut. Caleb Bordonaro portrays Noah, and Jessica Hirsh plays his stepmother, Rose.

Mikayla Moore plays Emmie, Caroline’s teenage daughter. The ensemble includes Playhouse regulars James Major Burns, Darlene Griffin, Jacinda Madison, James McClellan, Sam Perry and Trevail Maurice, and newcomers Sylvia Ewen, Thomas Lee Ewen, Diamond Ford and Kaliyah Long.

C. Austin Hill, a theater professor at Youngstown State University, is directing the Playhouse production.

Hill described “Caroline, or Change” as an “incredible” piece of theater that unfortunately doesn’t have a lot of name recognition.

Directing it poses several challenges. It is sung-through, which means every line is sung, and with a wildly diverse array of musical genres that ranges from ’60s pop to gospel to a Mozart fugue.

It also includes the Kushner-esque use of non-realism. Inanimate objects – a washing machine, a radio, the moon, a bus – become characters.

On top of all that, “Caroline” has a very timely story line.

“It centers on Caroline, and it deals with questions of race and privilege and priority, and cultural change,” said Hill. “That’s what this lovely maid struggles with – how much does she want to change. She is 39, has four kids, is divorced, and thought she’d be something more by now, but she’s in a society that doesn’t allow her to grow. She’s never been to school. She hates her life, but doesn’t know how to change, or if she wants to. But America is changing all while this is going on. The civil-rights movement is really cooking in the Deep South.”

The show was never a huge hit on Broadway (it had the misfortune of premiering the same year as “Wicked”).

But it has proven to be prescient in “life imitates art” fashion.

An undercurrent of racial tension shades the mood of “Caroline,” and in one scene it becomes known that a statue of a Confederate soldier had been torn down.

In real life, such statues were removed all over the South in a wave of action last year.

It was fortunate timing for the Playhouse, but unintentional.

“I find it so amazing that [James McClellan, Playhouse executive director] programmed ‘Caroline’ literally weeks before statues of Confederate soldiers started getting torn down throughout the South.”

Hill noted that “Caroline” is rooted deeply in the playwright’s own life. “Kushner is Noah,” he said. “He grew up in Lake Charles, La., in the same house described in the show, and he had a fraught and fascinating relationship with his family’s maid.”

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