How do we respond to change? In Tony Kushner and Jeanine Tesori’s operatic musical, “Caroline, or Change,” a black maid for a Southern Jewish family is catapulted into a new reality when JFK is assassinated and the civil rights movement gathers steam. Now, Gallery Players in Brooklyn is mounting a new production of the work, just six years after it ran at the Public Theater before transferring to Broadway for a four-month run. With a black president in office, the time may be ripe for a fresh look at a musical about black-Jewish relations, class, and the pervasive effects of social change.
Directed by Jeremy Gold Kronenberg, the solemn, surrealistic musical is set in 1963 in Lake Charles, La. — the town where Kushner grew up. Caroline Thibodeaux (Teisha Duncan) is a single mother of four who imagines that the Washing Machine (Marcie Henderson), Dryer (Frank Viveros) and Radio (Nikki Stephenson) in the basement laundry room can either tyrannize her or join her in singing the blues. Even the Bus (Viveros) that she takes to work and the Moon (Gisela Adisa) that shines above her take on human qualities and warble to her about the ineluctability of change.
Told by her employer Rose Stopnick Gellman (Eileen Tepper) that she can keep any money that Rose’s 8-year-old stepson, Noah (Daniel Henri Luttwig) leaves in his pockets, Caroline is ambivalent about taking the child’s money. But when Noah forgets about the $20 bill that he received as Chanukah gelt, the stage is set for a confrontation between the maid and her young charge, in which each will say things that cannot be taken back. In her climactic number, “Lot’s Wife,” Caroline prays to be liberated from both her fury and her sorrow.
While Kushner “takes an almost carnal glee in tackling the most difficult subjects in contemporary history,” John Lahr wrote in a 2005 profile of Kushner in The New Yorker, the playwright “forces the audience to identify with the marginalized — a humanizing act of the imagination.” Indeed, when “Caroline, or Change” ran on Broadway, Frank Rich of The Times compared the musical to Kushner’s best-known work, “Angels in America,” suggesting that both capture an experience of thunderous upheaval — the “sensation,” he called it, “of history cracking open.”
In a telephone interview, Kronenberg told The Jewish Week that the characters in the musical are on the “precipice of change.” Each of us, he said, has an “internal speedometer that lets us know how comfortable we are with the velocity of change.” The work, he said, is about “how two different worlds come together” and “what happens in the moment of their clashing.” Kronenberg quoted one of the songs, “16 Feet Beneath the Sea,” in which the Washing Machine sings that there will be “consequences unforeseen,” in which the lives of all Americans will change forever.
“Caroline, or Change” runs through Feb. 21 at the Gallery Players, 199 14th Street (between Fourth and Fifth avenues) in Park Slope. Performances are Thursdays – Saturdays at 8 p.m. with Saturday matinees at 2 p.m. and Sunday matinees at 3 p.m. For tickets, $18, call OvationTix at (212) 352-3101 or visit www. OvationTix.com.