Theatre on my Mind

Caroline or Rage: Not Much has Changed

Rage. It can be quiet, but inevitably builds up over time. For most people of color, expressing rage is a carefully calculated decision as lack of suppression can have dire consequences.

When we meet Caroline (Rashada Dawan), a domestic technician for a seemingly average Jewish family, we know something is building. In this Civil Rights era production, race and class are at the helm of the tension, but much of the strife lay at the feet of naiveté—ignorance of how people that are different from you live.

Caroline, or Change is the loose autobiographical musical of Tony Kushner’s childhood, which made its Broadway debut in 2004. Much has happened since then, yet this piece still feels sorely relevant for a country facing a major identity crisis.

At its core, this is a show about two families living in Louisiana, but the relationship here is transactional as one family wields more power, amplified by paychecks and the color of their skin. The Gellmans are made up of a widowed father, Stuart, and son, Noah, and the newest member, wife and step-mom, Rose. Opposite them is Caroline Thibodeaux, a hardworking mother, and sole provider to her three daughters. Under the expert direction of Lili-Anne Brown, these characters are staunch in their respective points of view, further amplifying how their needs differ.

Rose (powerfully portrayed by Blair Robertson) is a city woman thrown off-balance by a new life in the country. Though trying her best, she steps on herself when attempting to be helpful. When juxtaposed to the trials and tribulations of Caroline, the gap between class and race struggles is painfully exposed. Here, their energies clash and their priorities are of obvious different weights. Rose simply wants Noah to like her. Caroline is a struggling breadwinner. Yet, Brown deftly teases these out and shapes the women into individuals.

Caroline’s heaven and hell coexist in the Gellman basement, where it becomes clear that the sentient Supremes-like radio provides Greek Chorus-esque context to the audience and solace to Caroline. Dawan pours herself into Caroline so fully, so wholly, that we, the audience, want to go up and aid her in the housework. Caroline spends much time with the laundry, similarly serenaded by the washer (Tyler Symone) and dryer (Micheal Lovette), each adding a powerful voice to an already sonically dynamic production. Each character is almost of a different genre, ranging from blues to classical to Jewish Klezmer. Music Director Andra Velis Simon fills the space, despite Jeanine Tesori’s challenging score of varied genres and opposite styles.

For Firebrand’s most ambitious production since its recent founding in 2015, The Den is a curious choice of space for a show that would benefit from a more intimate space. The set by Lauren Nichols works its way up the Gellman house from basement, to kitchen and living room, and further up and over to Noah’s bedroom. Though beautifully designed and furnished, there are times when characters seem farther from us and each other than necessary.

Interestingly enough, it’s the lights (designed by Cat Wilson) that center and ground us in this world. Fairy lights serve as stars that surround the house and moon. The radio trio is further brought to life by delicate, belt-like lights, waist high within each gorgeous dress. A bus, which would otherwise look like a bell hop cart, is transformed with simple headlights. We know when and where we are even if the characters are generous with spacing.

Nevertheless, the relationship to watch is the one between Caroline and the Gellman son Noah (Alejandro Medina), for which represents Kushner’s boy self. Here, we see Caroline through Noah’s eyes—she’s strong and loves her daughters, yet he struggles to grasp her downtrodden demeanor. But we know it’s her quiet rage, her frustration with where she is in life, albeit through no fault of her own. But how to express this to an eight-year-old?  We ride the rollercoaster with them, hoping for the best but knowing most endings are not happy ones, at best we return back to the place we started.

Originally published as a part of The Key, Recripted’s Young Critic Mentorship Program