Caroline, or Change at Hampstead Theatre

In the first in a series on American plays in London, Hailey Bachrach responds to Caroline, or Change, on now at Hampstead Theatre. 

Caroline, or Change by Tony Kushner and Jeanine Tesori is one of those shows I went into with the score already memorized. It is inexplicably basically never done in the US, despite the fact that Tesori and Kushner are two of our greatest living theatre writers and the play itself is absolutely brilliant, but the Chichester production of last summer is now at the Hampstead Theatre, and will transfer to the West End this autumn. 

I may have just played my hand re: my thoughts about the show. 

But you realize a lot of things seeing something live rather than just listening to it and/or performing a one-woman version of it sometimes in your bathroom, and I was struck by how radical the show’s opening really feels. It’s simultaneously slow and abrupt: we are introduced to the central character’s world without much prologue, but we linger with her for a good, long time before any other characters or potential plot points are introduced. Here is a black woman, Kushner and Tesori say. She is a maid. Here is the basement she works in. Here are the appliances she works with. Why don’t you just listen to her for a while. So we do. 

This is Caroline, of course, the titular character, played with tremendous power by Sharon D. Clarke, whose inner struggles made up the bulk of the story. You can lay out the plot—Caroline’s boss, Rose (Lauren Ward), makes a new rule that Caroline can keep any change she finds in the pockets of Rose’s stepson Noah’s (a rotating pair of boys—I saw Aaron Gelkoff) clothes while doing laundry, a decision which causes Caroline and Noah’s relationship to unravel—and it doesn’t sound like much. The ebb and flow, the movement of the piece, almost all happens within Caroline.

I wish Caroline, or Change had been able to overlap more directly with the revival of Kushner’s Angels in America, as the parallels between the two are so fascinating. There is a scene in Perestroika, the second part of Angels, where a character asks how someone can change. The answer is a violent, gruesome process: one must be physically ripped apart and then clumsily sewn back together. Change involves inescapable pain—mental pain, probably, but so intense it becomes physical. Caroline, or Change argues the same thing. 

Like Angels, despite the universality of many of its feelings, Caroline is fundamentally an American story, concerned with pointedly American problems. In this case, the way race and money infect everything, the dual legacies of Jewish and black oppression and radicalism and how they are not as comparable as Jews would like them to be, how best to rewrite legacies of suffering. American Jewishness is different from British Jewishness, both because they are (obviously) different cultures in different countries, and also because they have very different relationships to the dominant culture in their respective countries. A distinctly American Jewishness is baked deeply into most of Kushner’s works—I keenly felt an absence of understanding of this in the National’s Angels, for reasons as simple as actors getting the cadence of certain phrases wrong. Caroline has a bit of over-the-top Fiddler on the Roof arm-waving, and the audience seemed to take certain moments in a scene set at Hanukkah as jokes for reasons I didn’t really get, but on the whole—maybe because there is actual music to dictate the pace, the tone, the musicality—the understanding of the feel of this culture is there. 

Seeing, rather than just hearing, a scene I’d never really thought about suddenly became central. During that Hanukkah scene, Caroline and her teenage daughter Emmie (Abiona Omonua, electricly good) have been brought in to help cook. Rose’s father Grandpa Stopnik (Teddy Kempner) has come down to visit from New York City. He’s the stereotypical lefty New York Jew, a cranky socialist who loves to hear himself talk. He bloviates about how Martin Luther King, Jr. has got his tactics wrong, until Emmie can’t take it anymore and starts a debate: where does he get off commenting on a situation he doesn’t understand? Grandpa Gellman fires back: look where non-violence got the Jews. 

Caroline and Rose are mortified—Rose at her father’s rudeness, Caroline insistent (in private, of course) that it’s not Emmie’s place to talk back, it isn’t safe. But when Caroline steers Emmie back to the kitchen, Grandpa Stopnick protests: ‘Since I came south, it’s my first real conversation.’ It’s a joke, and gets a laugh, but it’s also true. 

Grandpa Stopnick is both right and wrong. He’s insensitive to the power dynamics at play, too ready to see an equivalence where there is really just complexity. But he and Emmie are also right to try. Kushner says again and again, change hurts. We must hurt ourselves, we must risk hurting others. There is no polite route to change. But there are many ways to be impolite. Grandpa Stopnick incorrectly sees King’s civil disobedience as a passive play for martyrdom; Emmie recognizes the radical potential. All of the play’s fundamental concerns collide in the form of a disrupted dinner that is both electric and painfully uncomfortable. 

But what happens to the play when you place a veil of distance between the audience and this discomfort and pain? When the conflicts are not about our past, but their past? Their racism, their classism, their hypocrisy? I hope the purpose of great theatre is to help us see ourselves in the other. I fear that plays about American racism in particular—which have been remarkably plenteous in the past year—just become a vehicle to look at how bad things are over there. 

Maybe this fear that the audiences here will be too distant comes from the fact that play is so close to me personally: my mother grew up (partly) in Louisiana in the 1960s; the stories of my dad’s Jewish childhood are the same fascinating mix of privilege—Carol Burnett lived down the street, they had a live-in maid—and pain—his father couldn’t get into medical school because of Jewish quotas, we have no known family in Germany or Russia anymore. The well-intentioned white liberals the play for whom the play shows no mercy are them, me, us. There’s a sort of eager selfishness in such nearness, wanting everyone to see the play as clearly and closely as I do and also feeling sure they can’t. 

One is tempted to think this is why it doesn’t get done much in the US: it indicts precisely the group most likely to be at the theatre, those relatively well-off white women who are content they try their best when it comes to race, who mistake discomfort and disdain for worthy pity. One is therefore tempted to fear that the UK is readier to embrace it because they feel safe to observe from a distance. I hope not.  

Caroline, or Change is on at Hampstead Theatre until 21st April. Grab your tickets here