With the national conversation at an emotional pitch these days on issues of race and class, the revival of Tony Kushner’s 2003 play, “Caroline, or Change,” set in 1963 Louisiana, seems a perfect match for the current moment.
The most autobiographical work by the award-winning playwright, “Caroline, or Change” was first presented Off-Broadway in 2003 before moving to Broadway the following year, and it has been widely presented around the world. The musical, with book and lyrics by Kushner and a musical score by Jeanine Tesori — combining spirituals, blues, Motown, classical music, klezmer and folk music — returns to Broadway next month after a sold-out and highly praised run in London’s West End.
One director Kushner has worked with says, “He’s writing about what it means to be an American.”
Exploring complex and painful issues, the play is set during the civil rights movement, just as President Kennedy is assassinated. Much unfolds in the laundry room in the basement of the liberal Jewish household where Caroline, the African-American maid, works (and the washing machine and dryer sing). A subplot involves the removal of a public monument to the Confederacy — suggesting Kushner’s prescience as a writer.
In the stage family, the mother has passed away recently, and there’s a new stepmother who tries to get her young stepson to stop leaving his change in the pockets of his pants when they are to be washed. She lets Caroline know she can keep any change that she finds, and while Caroline is reluctant to take the money, she is a single mother and her own children are in need.
The playwright has insisted that this family is not the Kushners, although several details were drawn from his life. He grew up in Lake Charles, La., and when his mother had breast cancer she had to leave their home for some months; she did return and lived for more than 20 years, and did, in fact, have a rule that money left in their pcokets would go to the housekeeper. But he and his siblings got to see what life was like without their mother.
In 2018, Kushner recounted to the Times of London that he sent the manuscript to the housekeeper who worked for their family for many years and then invited her to New York to see the show in 2003. She told him that she recognized Caroline’s devotion to the family, but not her anger. Her daughter, who was also present, reassured him with a raised eyebrow that his memories were correct.
Sharon D. Clarke, who starred in the London production as Caroline, takes up the role in New York, marking her Broadway debut. Kushner recently described the British actor’s performance in London as “jaw-dropping and astonishing,” something that people who love musical theater “need to see.”
Clarke recently told Vogue Magazine, “We need stories like this to hold up the mirror, to ask, ‘How far have we come? Have we come far?’”
Other cast members include Kaden Amari Anderson, Joy Hermalyn, Kevin McAllister, N’Kenge, Alexander Bello, Harper Miles and Jaden Myles Waldman.
Kushner, known for his many plays, especially the two-part epic “Angels in America,” has received a Pulitzer Prize for Drama, an Emmy Award, two Tony Awards and other honors, including the 2015 Lifetime Achievement in the American Theater Award. In England, “Caroline, or Change,” produced at the National Theatre of Great Britain, received the Evening Standard Award, the London Drama Critics’ Circle Award and the Olivier Award for Best Musical. _
“Caroline, or Change” begins previews on March 13 for an April 7 opening, at Studio 54, Roundabout Theatre Company, Studio 54, 254 W. 54th St., Roundabouttheatre.com.