“NOTHING EVER HAPPEN under ground in Louisiana / Cause they ain’t no under ground in Louisiana. / There is only / under water.” With these words, playwright Tony Kushner draws us into the conundrum at the heart of the musical Caroline, or Change: How do you swim when you’re already so far below sea level? Caroline Thibodeaux (played by Sharon D Clarke in Roundabout Theatre Company’s Broadway revival production) is our eponymous anti-heroine, a 39-year-old maid and divorced mother of four, trying desperately to answer this question in every area of her life.
Based in part on Kushner’s own childhood, Caroline, or Change speaks through the sounds of Motown, gospel, klezmer, and blues—handily packaged by composer Jeanine Tesori—to tell the story of an uneasy friendship between Caroline and her employer’s son, 8-year-old Noah Gellman. The Gellman home becomes a larger metaphor for a country stratified by a brutal socioeconomic caste system, emphasized in the staging by a multilevel set. The structure of 1960s America is made visible, placing each character in predetermined roles, and thus unable to truly see each other.