Sheri Flanders is an actor, writer and comedian in Chicago. She is head writer for Choice The Musical, half of the comedy duo Flanders and part of the Infinite Sundaes musical house ensemble. Sheri is a contributor for Chicagoland Musical Theater, a faculty member of the Second City music program and co-owner of Flanders Consulting.
By Sheri Flanders
In partnership with TimeLine Theatre, Firebrand’s presentation of CAROLINE, OR CHANGE begins with a fascinating installation on the wall leading into the space at the Den Theatre, giving background on Tony Kushner’s story of an African American maid working in a Jewish household in Louisiana in 1963. One of the oldest synagogues in the country was established in Lake Charles, Louisiana, along with a small community of the first Jewish settlers to the otherwise white and black area. During the same time, the Civil Rights movement was in full swing, and maids fought for fair wages and the right to be called Domestic Technicians. The power of their organizing efforts brought together thousands of women across many US cities, serving as the catalyst for significant labor reforms and protections which tragically, domestic workers were ultimately exempt from.
Set against this backdrop, CAROLINE, OR CHANGE explores rich and rarely examined subject matter; the intersection of America’s two most discriminated minority groups during the turmoil of the 60s. Director Lili-Anne Brown navigates this convergence with a deft touch.
Sharing more than a little bit of DNA with LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS, Domestic Technician Caroline Thibodeaux (played by tour-de-force Rashada Dawan) conducts her daily laundry duties with the help of a new state-of-the-art sentient washer and dryer unit (powerhouse vocal duo Tyler Symone and Micheal Lovette, respectively.) Like LITTLE SHOP, in addition to having anthropomorphic characters, it also features a trio of doo-wop singers (a beautifully blended Emma Sipora Tyler, De’Jah Jerval and Roberta Burke) who represent the radio as Caroline changes stations to help pass the time. The washer/dryer, doo-wop trio and the evening moon (Tyler Symone doing double-duty) all serve as narrator, conscience and instigator to varying degrees, elevating the style of storytelling to something quite special and delicious.
The home that Caroline works in is inhabited by the Jewish Gellman family, newly transplanted to the Deep South and struggling to acclimate. Stuart Gellman, (played mirthfully by Jonathan Schwart, despite being saddled with a lazy “Atheists are cold and calculating” trope) has been recently widowed. The house is in mourning and his new wife Rose (hilariously played by Blair Robertson) slowly drowns in the Southern humidity while trying to make a meaningful connection with anyone in her isolated life. Her young stepson Noah, (portrayed with nuance and depth beyond his years by Alejandro Medina) adrift in grief, desperately reaches out for a mother figure in Caroline.
The history of the relationship between black women as domestic workers and the children of their employers is a long and painful one, stretching back to slavery. Even as a free woman, black domestic workers often spent more time with their employer’s children than their own, causing a complicated bond of love and resentment that is rarely examined honestly, and is usually papered over by cowardly storytellers with an offensive, idealistic, one-dimensional Mammy trope. The relationship between Caroline and Rose is thoughtfully crafted, its fraught and painful awkwardness bringing into sharp relief the unwritten boundaries between women’s interracial friendships constrained by a power differential.
It is truly a treat to see Caroline, a black woman, as a three-dimensional character, displaying the full range of hopes, joys and heartbreaks, not all centered around race. Seeing a black woman as a fully empowered title character, with multiple black women onstage at the same time, and women of all colors taking up the majority of the space onstage as main characters, is so rare as to be revelatory, and one of the core joys of experiencing a Firebrand-produced production.
As Rose welcomes her family for Hanukkah — set against a touching and warm depiction of the tradition of maintaining Jewish holiday rituals no matter where home may be — we are treated to one of the most dynamic scenes in the entire production. Grandpa Stopnick (a riveting and charming Michael Kingston) serves as the hilarious, fiery catalyst and imperfect vessel for delivering some crucial life lessons from elders to youth, both directly and inadvertently.
As if this dazzlingly talented cast couldn’t get any better, the younger actors nearly steal the show with their talent and enthusiasm. Bree Jacobs stuns in the powerful role of Emmie Thibodeaux, a teenager measuring her identity against that of her mother, and learning deeper truths about the nature of resistance. Princess Isis Z. Lang and Lyric K. Sims play the younger sisters Jackie and Joe Thibodeaux, capturing the room with their charm. When all four kids join forces for a delightful dance number, the crowd goes wild.
The anchor for this story is the indomitable Rashada Dawan as Caroline. She brings a raw sincerity and passion to the role of the exhausted, mild-mannered woman on the brink of anger that is incredibly powerful and moving. The scene and song during which Caroline experiences her epiphany is hands down the most emotionally riveting moment on stage in Chicago. Dawan’s keening voice acutely expresses the heartbreaking anguish and defeat that so many women experience every day.
CAROLINE, OR CHANGE is one of the rare few musicals that has an equally impressive book and score. Jeanine Tesori’s music is gorgeously complex; each character is embodied by a different instrument, and Kushner’s lyrics create thoughtful and powerful metaphors for the story. Andra Velis Simon’s orchestra sizzles, one can practically see steam emanating from the pit as the musicians unravel the haunting and luminous melodies. Tyler Symone is luminous as the moon, her impressive voice providing a beacon in the darkness for the lost characters.
Few theatres in Chicago provide the acoustics to appropriately showcase a showstopper musical, and the Den is no exception. At the top of the show, the cavernous room eats up the sound, sucking the energy from a song that would otherwise hit with a bang; a more intimate space would allow the rich soul and R&B vocals to completely envelop the audience. The Klezmer music fares better, instruments like the clarinet ring sharp, true and clear. Despite these challenges, Sound designer Victoria Deiorio and crew pull off no small miracle, successfully balancing and mixing 16 vocalists and 6 musicians, showcasing the lush score.
CAROLINE, OR CHANGE represents the best of what musical theatre is and should be. A riveting story with unique and unforgettable characters, amazing music and sprinkle of magic is change everyone can get behind.
CAROLINE, OR CHANGE runs at the Den Theatre through October 28. More info at firebrandtheatre.org.