Musical based on playwright's relationship with maid during the Civil Rights Movement

Jan 28, 2013

Credit WMU Theatre

The musical Caroline or Change by Tony Kushner is being staged in only one theatre in the country this year, the University Theatre at WMU. Caroline or Change is Kushner’s semi-autobiographical look back at his childhood.

Set in the midst of the Civil Rights Movement and the JFK assassination, it introduces the audience to Caroline, an African-American woman who works as a maid, and Noah, the young son of her employer who is grieving the death of his mother. Western Michigan University theatre professor Jay Berkow is directing the play.

“The piece is a sung-through, contemporary opera, basically. About this young boy’s loss of his mother, and bonding with Caroline, who is the family maid. She’s a woman in her late 30’s, with enough problems of her own, she’s divorced, raising four kids as a single mom in Louisiana in 1963,” says Berkow. “And what the piece is really about is all those small elements in our lives that pull us down and force us to recognize that we need to make some changes in our lives.”

Berkow says the musical uses many different musical styles. 

"It has Motown influence, it has gospel influence, it has Klezmer influence, because the family is Jewish," he says. "It also has a huge quantity of recitative, where you just kind of get used to hearing this kind of sung-through style of acting and after a while you don’t realize you are listening to music.”

Western alum Altameice Carolyn Cooper plays the title character for the University Theatre’s production of Caroline or Change. WMU theatre student Emily McKay convincingly plays the ten-year-old boy Noah, who yearns for a connection with Caroline.

“Caroline has absolutely no desire to nurture this white boy,” says Berkow. “She has enough, ah, she’s an angry woman. The boy bonds with her, primarily, because she’s so strong.” 

Mixing fact with fantasy, Caroline or Change explores the relationship between Caroline and Noah, as they struggle to make sense of the changing world. Berkow says the lessons seem crucial for Caroline. 

“She’s being pulled down by all the tragedy and all the frustrations and all the horrible things that have happened to her in her past," he says. "And, either she’s going to be Lot’s wife, and spend her entire life looking back and be turned into a pillar of salt, unable to move forward. Or, she has to stop looking back, and let go.”

Caroline or Change is on stage through February 10 in the York Arena Theatre of the Gilmore Theatre Complex at Western Michigan University