The musical “Caroline, or Change,” now playing at Court Theatre, takes place in November and December of 1963. It opens on the day of John F. Kennedy’s assassination, though for most of the first act the characters go about their everyday tasks without any awareness that the president has been killed. “There is no underground in Lousiana, only underwater,” sings Caroline (E. Faye Butler), doing laundry for an upper-middle-class Jewish family in the basement of their home. The idea that rising water is both a harbinger of change and a violent force that could destroy the status quo pervades her every day, as she toils in the only basement for miles. The end of 1963 was a scary and uncertain time in America, with the escalation of the Civil Rights movement and the Vietnam War. Caroline’s stressful life and her shaky ability to support her family on only $30 a week mean that she must shut out the events of the outside world. For her, subsistence is a greater concern than social progress.
The son of the family that Caroline works for, Noah, adores her, and cherishes the cigarette that she lets him light for her each day. “Caroline is mean, and Caroline is tough,” sings Noah, who, with or without awareness of the irony of the title, calls her “President Caroline.” The little boy struggles with the death of his own mother. She was a bassoonist who played duets with his father, a now-mournful clarinetist who can’t bring himself to pay attention to his young son. The son inexplicably hates his new stepmother, a northern transplant; but his affection for Caroline is not returned.
Told that Caroline can keep any change he leaves in his pockets, Noah begins discarding dimes and quarters, and fantasizing that Caroline talks about him and his extreme generosity with her children at home. However, Caroline, ashamed of the money that she sees herself stealing from the child, does not tell her children where the new, minor windfall has come from. So preoccupied with the complications of Noah’s pocket change, Caroline can’t allow herself to embrace the greater change around her.
Caroline, whose ambitions can no longer reasonably extend beyond her position as a maid, clashes with her own daughter, Emmie, whose outspoken antics make Caroline uncomfortable. Unquestionably part of the next generation, Emmie advocates for the end of the racial and social injustice that Caroline continually shuts out.
“Caroline, or Change” was written by Tony Kushner, with music by Jeanine Tesori. The tale is semiautobiographical for Kushner, who recalls his own childhood in Noah’s. The misapprehensions and passive conflict between the somewhat affluent Jews and the struggling Caroline escalates as the play moves forward. The play is written like a contemporary opera, drawing from gospel and blues traditions with almost every line sung by the talented cast. Director Charlie Newell placed the band above the stage, exposing the musical framework of the piece to the audience’s gaze.
In 1963, Bob Dylan recorded his album “The Times They Are A-Changin’.” Dylan sang to his audience, “Admit that the waters around you have grown, and accept it that soon you’ll be drenched to the bone. The order is rapidly changing.” As rain falls on stage in the second act of the play, one can’t help but recall Dylan’s prediction of the metaphorical flood that would soon overtake the establishment. Though the sea of change of the sixties and seventies is lauded for the impact it had on the generation that came of age during those rebellious times, “Caroline” is a reminder that for those who were older and in positions without power, the flood was also suffocating. Court Theatre, 5550 S. Greenwood Ave. Through October 28. courttheatre.org