Change is gonna come


Last night’s performance of Court Theatre's season opener—the Midwestern premiere of Pulitzer Prize–winner Tony Kushner’s Caroline, or Change—started standing-room only and ended with a standing ovation. In between came what Chicago Tribune critic Chris Jones called an “emotionally unstinting and thoroughly gripping four-star production.”

The emotion started with John Culbert’s subterranean set, centered on the basement of a house in St. Charles, Louisiana. Day after day, Caroline, an African American maid for a well-off Jewish family, does the laundry while listening to the radio and an interior monologue of sorrow, rage, and resignation: “16 feet beneath sea-level...caught between the devil and the muddy brown sea.”

Caroline was originally conceived as an operatic libretto. Athough that project was shelved, Kushner’s play, with a score by Jeanine Tesori that combines spirituals and Motown, Christmas carols and Klezmer, classical and folk music, remains operatic in style and power. E. Faye Butler gives a monumental performance as Caroline; Melanie Brezill dazzles as Caroline’s idealistic daughter, Emmie; and Kate Fry is equally, if more quietly, effective, as Rose Gellman, a Northerner who has moved South to marry a widowed friend and become the stepmother to his sad and angry eight-year-old son, Noah.

The play begins on the day that John F. Kennedy was assassinated, and indeed the only jarring note in the play’s magical realism, where radio, washer, dryer, bus, and moon have singing roles, is that neither Caroline nor the Gellman family learns of JFK’s death until the early evening. If you lived through that day, it’s hard to believe. But if you lived through that era, especially in the South, you’ll laugh, you’ll cry, and you’ll want to see Caroline again.

Directed by Charles Newell with music direction by Doug Peck (the two, with Culbert, have previously teamed on award-winning productions of Carousel and Man of La Mancha), Caroline runs through October 19.


In the heat of the Dryer: Harriet Nzinga Plumpp as the Washer (left), Byron Glenn Willis as the Dryer, and E. Faye Butler as Caroline. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

September 22, 2008