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Reviewed by:
  • Caroline, or Change
  • Shane Breaux (bio)
Roundabout Theatre Company, New York, NY

My relationship with Tony Kushner and Jeanine Tesori’s Caroline, or Change is long and personal. I grew up in Lake Charles, Louisiana, where the musical is set, and also where my siblings and I took music lessons from Kushner’s father in the 1980s. When I saw George C. Wolfe’s original production at the Public [End Page 51] Theater in 2003, I was overwhelmed by the show’s complex grappling with race, class, and social justice in a place I still considered home from its first line: “They ain’t no underground in Louisiana. There is only underwater.” I saw the production twice during its initial Broadway run in 2004, and wrote my Master’s thesis on it. When the Roundabout Theatre Company announced it would present the London revival starring Sharon D. Clarke in March 2020, I had planned to revisit the musical from a contemporary perspective, in particular the major shifts in racial, gender, and financial inequality in American society that had grown since 2003. But the revival was canceled before I was ever able to see it; the rise of the Covid-19 pandemic resulted in the shuttering of theatres on March 12, 2020.

Since then, I have been wondering what this and other dashed productions might have reflected about life in the U.S. in 2020. In addition to Caroline, or Change, I wondered how productions off-Broadway like Aleshea Harris’s What to Send Up When It Goes Down at Playwrights Horizons and Lincoln Center Theater’s opera adaptation of Lynn Nottage’s Intimate Apparel would accumulate new social relevance in that important election year. Of course, in the theatre, we are accustomed to the ephemerality of performance, but the urgency borne of that ephemerality became palpable when it all shut down and everyone was forced to stay home.

This has inspired lingering questions of what might have been had Caroline, or Change opened as scheduled. For instance, a major plot point sees Caroline’s teenage daughter Emmie resisting white supremacy in 1963 rural Louisiana by toppling a local statue of a Civil War soldier. In 2020, local reckonings with Confederate statues had finally begun to be inspired by growing racial justice movements, such as Black Lives Matter. Also, if Caroline, or Change had opened in March, it would have been in performance when Lake Charles was hammered by two hurricanes only two months apart that summer. With its low-income areas facing most of the destruction, the show’s opening line about the Louisiana underground actually being underwater would feel all the more resonant. In addition, Lake Charles residents had also voted to keep a Confederate statue standing at the Calcasieu Parish Court House only two weeks before Hurricane Laura’s intense winds denied those voters by knocking it down. The accuracy with which Kushner and Tesori’s musical represents the racial and class reckonings in 1963 Louisiana and those of our own “woke” post-Obama present-day society, demonstrates just how unfortunately little our racial paradigms have changed between 1963, 2003, and 2020.

As I continued thinking about what might have been had the theatre season continued uninterrupted, I worried that the momentum of diversifying American [End Page 52] theatrical representation that was underway just prior to the canceled season, including the need for diversifying representation at the institutional level, would be blunted by the shutdown. However, it seems the opposite has been the case, as many companies seem to have used the time away from producing for institutional self-reflection and recalibration. In the past few months, Broadway productions of Melvin Van Peeble’s 1971 Ain’t Supposed to Die a Natural Death and Antoinette Nwandu’s Pass Over have been announced. In addition, advocacy groups such as Broadway United for Racial Justice, Black Theatre United, and Asian American Arts Alliance have been created and/or reached greater visibility and garnered wider support than ever in the past year.

While I am certainly excited to return to live performances simply because I miss it, I am also curious (and cautiously hopeful) about what...


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pp. 51-53
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