The location is Lake Charles, Louisiana, in the year 1963. Caroline, a maid, spends much of her time doing laundry in a steamy basement, so frustrated by her life that she sees the dryer and washer as taunting human beings. These machines are played and sung by actors, as is the bus for which the maids endlessly wait after work, a device that threw me for a few minutes — I kept wondering who this strange, vaguely threatening man was. The basement radio is also personified, taking the form of a glittery girl trio. Caroline works for the Gellmans, a family of liberal Jews whose son, Noah, feels a deep attachment to her. His mother died of cancer and his father, Stuart, has re-married. But Noah loathes his stepmother, Rose — and Caroline doesn’t like her much either.
Southern literature is full of stories about lonely white kids bonding with warm-hearted black maids and nannies, so you might have expectations about where this story is going. If so, you’re wrong. Caroline and Noah do share a small ritual, but as the mother of four children, she has far too much on her mind and is far too bitter to give the nine-year-old the affection he craves. As for Rose, she can be full-on white-lady patronizing, but she really does try to find some kind of footing with Caroline. Noah has a habit of forgetting coins in the jeans he leaves for the laundry, and Rose decides Caroline should keep any money she finds — both to teach Noah a lesson about responsibility and to help Caroline: Those pennies and quarters don’t seem like much, but they make a difference to a maid living on thirty dollars a week and having trouble feeding her own children. Caroline is insulted, but the need is overpowering, and she acquiesces. This small event has large repercussions. And Noah’s silvery quarters aren’t the only thing that gives the musical its title. There’s also a far bigger canvas of change.
In 1963, the civil rights movement was asserting itself, and in Lake Charles the statue of a confederate soldier has been torn down and decapitated. Later, as Caroline and her friend Dotty wait at the stop, the Bus itself has an announcement: the murder of President John F. Kennedy.
The play’s second act takes place during the holiday season. The Gellmans are celebrating Chanukah, while Caroline works in the kitchen with Dotty and her daughter Emmie. Rose’s father, Mr. Stopnick, a dyed-in-the-wool leftist who believes in radical and confrontational methods of achieving change, gets into a passionate argument with Emmie about Martin Luther King’s advocacy of nonviolence: “There’s nothing meeker than a Jew/ Listen girlie, we have learned/Nonviolence will get you burned.” She responds that “sitting safe and high and pretty/Way up north in New York City” he can’t possibly understand. Both of them seem to thoroughly enjoy the exchange, though Caroline quickly brings it to an end.
The human relationships are fascinating in themselves — and particularly telling to watch as they unwind in this charged and changing landscape; the music adds an indescribable dimension. But under Kenny Moten’s splendid direction and music director Trent Hines’s handling of the beautifully complex score, there are also the performances. Mary Louise Lee carries the night as Caroline with her powerful voice and profound emotion. And then there are Maggie Tisdale as poor, uptight Rose; Betty Hart’s smart and composed Dotty; Sophia Dotson, who was a knockout in Fun Home, owning the role of Noah — and just how can she be so damn good at thirteen? You also get Krisangela Washington’s expressive acting and rich, beautiful voice as Emmie and Rajdulari, whose silvery soprano is perfect for the role of Moon. Just go, listen, and close your eyes now and then to let the full brilliance of this work seep into you.
Caroline, or Change, presented by the Aurora Fox Arts Center through May 5. 9900 East Colfax Avenue, Aurora, 303-739-1970, aurorafox.org.