The Thinking Man's Idiot

The unruly brain and bad habits of a writer, artist, and grilled cheese sandwich-enthusiast.

‘Change’ gon’ Come: ‘Caroline, or Change’ at Ray of Light

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Poster by Yrving Torrealba for Ray of Light Theatre

“They just like taking pictures…They don’t care that we are embarrassed by our dirt and torn clothing, that we would prefer they didn’t do it; they just take pictures anyway, take and take.”
― NoViolet Bulawayo, We Need New Names

A few days before seeing this show, I got into a stupid online argument (I know, “Is there any other kind?”) about China’s growing influence in Africa. The anonymous troll with whom I argued insisted that China’s presence has resulted in “railroads, bridges, airports, and buildings” that wouldn’t have been there before. This is the classic flawed logic of colonial apologists: “If this super-power hadn’t conquered this indigenous land, the latter wouldn’t be as advanced as they are now.” Another one I hate most is the one suggesting the conquered peoples shouldn’t be given freedom (yet) because they’re akin to children who haven’t learned to care for themselves (see any of John Wayne’s old quotes about civil rights or that Mad Men episode where Medgar Evars is killed).

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Photo by Nick Otto.

But the one that really gets me is that of the White savior who wants some sort of prize for not murdering, raping, and pillaging other cultures. Just as Matt Damon thinks men who don’t rape should get special recognition for, y’know, not raping, so too do certain White folks think they deserve gold medals for not lynching every Black body they come across.

Rose Stopnick-Gellman (played hilariously by Katie Pimental) is such a self-congratulator. The progeny of proud New York Jews, one of Rose’s highest priorities as the second wife of Southern widower Stuart (Roy Eikelberry) seems to be “supporting” maid Caroline (a wonderful Jasmyne Brice) in the most condescending way possible: encouraging Caroline to keep the loose change she finds in the pockets of Rose’s new step-son, Noah (Christopher Apy). Rose considers this such a good deed that she can’t fathom why Caroline isn’t grateful, or why she “[doesn’t] smile once in a while”. To Rose, Caroline is less a person and more a task – perhaps the only household task Caroline herself doesn’t do.

But Caroline is a person. Her life has taken so many downturns that she seems solely grateful for the fact that she and her three children have lived through them. Caroline doesn’t want to be the one to rock the boat, but she soon finds out that the world will turn on, whether you’re moving or not.

Caroline, or Change at Ray of Light (2019) - set

Set by Kuo-Hao Lo. Photo by Me.

And that’s the sort of 1963 America we’re given in Tony Kushner’s Caroline, or Change. (Although the pre-show and intermission playlists feature such anachronistic songs as Stevie Wonder’s “Uptight”, Gloria Jones’ “Tainted Love”, and Aretha Franklin’s “Chain of Fools”.) It’s one in which Motown tops the charts and Black people are protesting in the streets. It’s the year Martin Luther King said “I Have a Dream” and the year George Wallace was elected to office. Most notably, it was the year President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. How significant the latter event was or wasn’t to Black America makes for one of Caroline, or Change’s funniest dialogue exchanges.

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Photo by Nick Otto.

I’ve mentioned before how cautious I am when encountering “Black stories” penned by White authors, particularly those of Tony Kushner. Fortunately, Kushner has once again proven competent at the task, if not entirely masterful. After all, this is still a perspective not his own. Still, he wisely makes the decision to keep Caroline and the Black characters the primary focus of the piece. In an age when the police would often act as legal extension of the Ku Klux Klan, Caroline has every reason in the world to be worried about the new political awakening of daughter Emmy (Markaila Dyson). With a Confederate statue having been rightfully destroyed lately, Emmy’s new voice won’t merely get her arrested – it’ll get her killed.

Although the White Jewish family who employ Caroline aren’t the central focus, they are given an appropriate level of dimension. Kushner does this by having them remember that they’re only one generation – at most – removed from the Holocaust. This makes grandfather Mr. Stopnick (played with verve by Michael Demartini) empathetic to the Civil Rights Movement, though he wishes they were more aggressive. Stopnick is the only one willing to voice an opinion about the Movement, as the rest of the Gellman family would, like Caroline, prefer not to draw attention to themselves in a hostile Southern climate. That’s what makes Caroline’s relationships with Noah and Rose so entertaining to watch: Noah idolizes Caroline only to the point where she’s a gateway to Black culture; and Rose, envious that Noah’s taken a shine to Caroline, believes that doing the least (pocket change) is better than doing nothing at all. They personify misguided White guilt.

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Photo by Nick Otto.

If there’s a flaw to Kushner’s work, it’s likely the fact that it’s incredibly long-winded. Granted, a 2 1/2 -hour runtime is practically a sketch in Kusher’s repertoire, but there are still moments in which he obsesses so much about his point that occasionally fails to fully make it.

Fortunately for Ray of Light, they’re blessed with a pretty good cast and crew to pull it all off. Of the cast I’ve already mentioned under Jenn Bevard’s direction, I’d be remiss not to mention Phaedra Tilly as Dotty, a maid who tends to work Caroline’s nerves, but whose heart is often in the right place. In the wrong hands, the character would be incredibly grating. Thankfully, Tilly and Bevard know when to pull her back. I also have to mention Caroline’s doo-wop Greek chorus, who end up personifying her untapped Id and her greatest fears, all in the style of The Supremes and the Ronnettes.

Kuo-Hao Lo’s set is a bit abstract in its design, what with almost no walls and a loose definition of space. Still, Kevin Myrrick’s lights and Jerry Girard’s sounds fill in the blank spaces nicely. Bethany Deal clearly had a lot of fun designing the costumes for the characters. Though it mainly consists of period-appropriate wear (so many sweater-vests), the brightly-colored threads of Caroline’s inner-monologue are both pleasing to the eye and subtle in how the perfectly align with the appliances on set. The chorus are also a fine showcase of David Möschler’s musical direction and Angel Adedkon’s choreography. Fine work all around.

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Photo by Nick Otto.

It never surprises me that racial apologists frequently kvetch about show like this, as they consider racism a problem solved by the ending of slavery. Those same apologists are the type to find easy parallels between their own bigotry and that of times gone by. That’s what scares them about these stories: they know they’re the villains.

Caroline, or Change is the story of a title character who doesn’t want to be a hero surrounded by people who foolishly think they all are. It’s a story to which most of us can relate all too well. The story is a bit too bloated to be perfect, but it’s at least a fine piece for Ray of Light’s mid-season entry in a year they’ve declared themselves risk-takers.

GRADE:                                                                                B

Caroline, or Change is scheduled to run until the 5th of October at the Victoria Theatre in San Francisco, CA.
The show runs 2 ½ hours with a single 15-min. intermission.
For tickets and information, please visit the production’s official site here.

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