A seminal event is happening at this very moment in Los Angeles. It is the West Coast premiere of the Tony Kusher/ Jeanine Tesori musical, "Caroline, or Change" at the Ahmanson Theatre. What occurs on stage is a magical, life-changing and life-affirming experience that must be in some way similar to the way people responded when Show Boat, West Side Story and Company appeared on Broadway. In the way that those shows reinvented the musical form, I believe "Caroline, or Change" will go down in the annals of theatre in much the same way.
"Caroline, or Change," takes place in Lake Charles, Louisiana in 1963, just before the assassination of President Kennedy, in the midst of the Civil Rights Movement. Caroline is the black maid of a Southern Jewish family a father, his new wife, and the man's young son Noah. Since the death of the his mother, Noah has sought solace in the company of Caroline, sitting with her in the basement while she does the laundry much to the disappointment of his stepmother, who is trying to form her own relationship with the boy.
In an attempt to become more of a mother to the boy, the new stepmother tries to teach Noah more about discipline and responsibility. You see, Noah has been leaving his pocket change in his pants when he throws them in the hamper. Distraught that his carelessness will be seen as insensitive to the maid who only make $30 a week, the stepmother tells Caroline that she may keep any money she finds in the laundry for herself. Torn by her pride, which tells her not to take money from a child, and the want to provide a better life for her children, Caroline's dilemma becomes a combustible powder keg that will change everyone in the household.
Caroline, played by Tonya Pinkins, in a performance one can only call genius (more on that later), is herself a microcosm of the country as a whole. As the lyrics remind us "Change come fast, change come slow," and we see this dichotomy in Caroline, who has great pride and rightly so but finds it in conflict with her role as that of a servant.
Caroline spends most of her time in the only basement in Lake Charles, which is an escape, as well as a prison for the maid. When we first meet Caroline she sings, "Nothing ever happen underground in Louisiana/ Cause there ain't no underground in Louisiana/ There is only Underwater" And the description is accurate, for Caroline herself is underwater struggling to make ends meet, a divorcee with a child in Vietnam, not to mention three other at home. Her life has been a constant struggle, and sadly, the underground tomb where she does her washing and drying, is also the only place she can be herself, without the dutiful façade of the maid dancing and singing along with the radio.
The change in the pockets of the boy's pants become an allegory for the greater movement of change in the world, and how change can bring both hope and despair. One of the most powerful moments in the musical comes when the bus Caroline and her friend Dottie are waiting for arrives late, explaining with sadness that President Kennedy has been shot. In his brief, soulful soliloquy, the bus expresses the despair he feels for this great loss, as this President epitomized hope, and with hope, a better life for all.