Caroline, or Change

The Radio (played by Courtney Clark, Melanie R. Finley and Roenia S. Thompson) comes to life as Caroline (Tamara Siler) works.
Doug Killgore

Somewhere in between tonal poetry and contemporary opera lies Tony Kushner's admirably somber "musical," Caroline, or Change. The word "musical" belongs in quotes because the thoughtful, complex history lesson that has arrived, finally, for its regional debut at Main Street Theater is nothing like the glimmering song-and-dance acts typical of Broadway. Instead of the usual linear tale that happily arrives at a familiar emotional space, Kushner gives us a complex, cool collage of characters and music that slowly come together to capture the rich nuances of a difficult moment in American history.

It's 1963 — the year J.F.K. is shot. Caroline Thibodeaux (Tamara Siler) is a black maid working in hot Louisiana for a liberal Jewish family. She despises her job, which has her washing and ironing away long Southern afternoons in a steaming laundry room — all for a measly $30 a week. But she's even more bothered by all the newfangled ideas floating around her neighborhood. Fellow maid Dotty Moffett (Constance Washington) is wearing bobby socks and going to night school! Caroline doesn't approve of such big ambition. And her teenage daughter Emmie (Lori "Ladi" Dansby) is full of big ideas about civil rights. The girl gossips with delight about the old statue of a Confederate war hero that's mysteriously stolen one secret night. Caroline is outraged. She prefers the old world order, especially the one that had her living with her long-gone husband. He drank and beat her, but in the beginning he loved her. And now her working days are spent longing for those early nights. Loneliness and deprivation have hardened into a cancerous anger grown huge inside her broken heart — Caroline never smiles.

Caroline's angry sorrow is understood by one boy, Noah Gellman (double-cast with Sean Hardin and Julian Brashears), the lonely child who spends his afternoons in the basement with her. In fact, Noah adores Caroline. She knew his mother, who smoked cigarettes and died, leaving him with his own broken heart. And while Caroline is never tender with Noah, she does let him light her own cigarette, a secret that binds the boy to his maid.


Caroline, or Change

Through January 20. Main Street Theater, 4617Montrose, 713-524-6706. $20-$35.

But Noah's feelings aren't shared by Rose Gellman (Laura Nanes), Noah's new stepmother, who's annoyed by the flinty woman who works for her. No matter how respectful Rose is, Caroline keeps her cold distance from the liberal white Northerner who wants to be her "friend."

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Caroline prefers the company of her Radio, her Washing Machine and her hot Dryer, who all come to life as she works. The Radio (Courtney Clark, Melanie R. Finley, Roenia S. Thompson) takes the shape of a Supremes-like girl group that sings Caroline's bitter thoughts. The Washing Machine (Alice Gatling) and the Dryer (Kevin Artrez Haliburton) also speak to the conflict inside Caroline.

Only her children make her smile — once. Her boys Joe (Joshua Bolden) and Jackie (Matthew J. Smith), along with daughter Emmie, get one weary grin from their mother when she hands each child a shining quarter, change left in the laundry by Noah. Rose has told Caroline to keep what she finds in the laundry to teach Noah to be more careful with his money. But this arrangement causes broke Caroline a great deal of inner conflict — she needs the cash but hates taking change from a child. And when Noah leaves the $20 bill he gets for Hanukkah in his pocket, Caroline has to face up to some very bitter truths about her world.

There is nothing sweet here. The only tenderness comes from the Moon (Marion Vernette Moore) that shines down on this tale with constant wisdom. The Moon knows about change of every kind. And Caroline's children are a bright spot. Smith as little Jackie and Dansby as Emmie are delightful. Hardin (who played Noah the night I saw the show) makes a plaintive and moving character whose loneliness is deeply felt. Siler's Caroline captures the musical complexity of Jeanine Tesori's score, if not all the hues of Caroline's internal anger.

Kushner's story gets much better in the second act, after he's dispensed with a whole act of exposition (though that first act has strong moments). The entire show is sung through, which requires patience and resolve from the audience. But Rebecca Greene Udden's thoughtful direction keeps the story pushing forward. And when the final scene takes place, the imaginative puzzle of Kushner's entire project works its way into to a surprisingly satisfying end.

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