Sharon D Clarke initially sat down with Playbill February 10, 2020. At the time, she was one month out from her Broadway debut, reprising her Olivier Award-winning performance as Caroline in a highly anticipated revival of Caroline, or Change. “I’m just giddy,” she said.
“Everything is at the right time.”
That debut never came.
“The first thing was not to take it personally,” Clarke says, over a year and a half later. Her heart sank not for her own derailed Broadway bow, but for those where the stakes were higher. When Broadway shut down en masse March 12, 2020, the company of Six—comprised primarily of Broadway newcomers—was just hours from celebrating opening night. Among Clarke’s own castmates, younger actors, who, like her, were poised to make their Broadway debuts with the production, faced aging out of their roles if the shut- down went on for too long.
So for Clarke, the priority became rallying around the company and community at large. “There was some solidarity there,” she says. “We were in it with other people experiencing the same thing.”
As the shutdown grew from weeks to months to an indefinite hiatus, Clarke moved back to her native north London. Although the circumstances of the early relocation were emotionally exhausting, the downtime was an opportunity to recharge before diving back into the emotionally exhausting role that is Caroline Thibodeaux (Roundabout Theatre Company remained committed during the pandemic to mount the production once feasible). For her and her wife (fellow theatre artist Susie McKenna), downtime meant time together—to cook, to get fish delivered, to watch delivery workers dance to their “Habanera” doorbell. And, when Caroline returned with an October 27 opening, Clarke was ready for her.
“She’s an old friend, in a way,” Clarke, who’s played Caroline, or Change’s title role on-and-off for four years, explains. “I don’t have to worry about how I find her, because I’ve been through that process. But, of course, she’s not stuck in one place. I’m looking forward to being able to enrich her even more with the knowledge we have now.”
During her initial, pre-pandemic interview with Playbill, Clarke pondered the continued relevance of the 1963-set piece from its 2003 premiere to her initial run in 2017, which opened the week a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, led to a fatal riot. The piece’s resonance in contemporary conversations still rings, painfully, true. In the months between our conversations, the world watched the murder of George Floyd and too many other Black individuals at the hands of police. Amid marches, trials, and the echoing of the names of those killed, the theatre community faced a reckoning of its own as just one of many industries forced to confront its perpetuation of systemic racism and injustice.
“Everything is at the right time.” Again.
“Every time we have told this story, there has been something in life to mirror it,” Clarke says. Those echoes reverberate regardless of what side of the Atlantic she’s on. Last June, photos of protesters in Bristol dumping a statue of British slave trader Edward Colston into the River Avon spread alongside similar footage from the U.S. In the show, the mystery surrounding the toppling of a Confederate monument looms over Caroline—a Black maid in Louisiana— her family, her friends, and her employers. “We’re not at a point where those stories are a part of history. They’re still very, very, very much close to home.”
A common thread between the piece and today’s headlines offers Clarke some light: youth-driven progress. In conversations in 2020 and in 2021, the performer emphasized the zeal that Emmie, Caroline’s daughter, possesses—zeal that Caroline can no longer feel for herself. In 2021, Clarke just had more footage and stories to turn to: “Kids took to the streets and said, ‘No, we are a generation that’s not gonna suffer this. And when we can vote, we will vote you out.’ Kids are standing up, and it’s my hope that it’s that generation coming through that will affect this change.”
It’s a hope that Clarke and Caroline, though their stories are decades apart, share.
A version of this article appears in the November edition of Playbill Magazine. Caroline, or Change continues at Broadway's Studio 54 through January 9, 2022.