A Woman "Bigger Than the Life She is Given to Live" — The Inspiration Behind Caroline, Or Change | Playbill

News A Woman "Bigger Than the Life She is Given to Live" — The Inspiration Behind Caroline, Or Change Playbill.com digs into its archives to explore past articles. In the next installment, Tony Kushner, Jeanine Tesori and Tonya Pinkins discuss the creation and inspiration for the acclaimed musical Caroline, or Change.

From Top: Tony Kushner, Jeanine Tesori, George C. Wolfe
From Top: Tony Kushner, Jeanine Tesori, George C. Wolfe


The moon, a bus, a washing machine and the small town Louisiana of 1963 all contribute to the story of Caroline, or Change, a new musical which starts previews at the Public Theater Off-Broadway, Oct. 29

The show marks the first collaboration between playwright-librettist Tony Kushner and composer Jeanine Tesori, as well as Kushner’s first musical. George C. Wolfe directs. The opening is set for Nov. 30.

A one-day delay in previews was put down to “delays in the technical rehearsal schedule.”

The cast is led by Tonya Pinkins, who plays Caroline. Also featured are Chuck Cooper, Veanne Cox, Reathel Bean, Harrison Chad, Tracy Nicole Chapman, David Costabile, Marcus Carl Franklin, Marva Hicks, Capathia Jenkins, Larry Keith, Ramona Keller, Adriane Lenox, Alice Playten, Anika Noni Rose, Kevin Tate and Chandra Wilson.

Caroline, or Change takes place in Louisiana in 1963, just before President Kennedy's assassination and during the Civil Rights movement. Caroline is the black maid of the Gellmans, a Southern family, made up of a father, his new wife and the man's young son, Noah. The son's birth mother has recently died, and the stepmother is trying to establish a relationship with the child, who already has a close connection with Caroline. The title has a double meaning, referring to the myriad social changes swirling around the family and a family argument surrounding the spare change perpetually found in the boy's pants pockets.

Chandra Wilson and Tonya Pinkins
Chandra Wilson and Tonya Pinkins Photo by Michal Daniel

The story is loosely based on Kushner's own childhood, though he has been cagey about calling it autobiographical. "Some of it is memory," he quipped. "Some of it is misremembered. A mis-memory play." However, Pinkins noted at a recent press preview that she had talked to the woman who was the model for Caroline.

The musical's characters include a bus (personified by the deep-voiced Chuck Cooper), the moon (played by Adriane Lenox), a dryer, a washing machine and a radio (embodied by Marva Hicks, Ramona Keller and Tracy Nicole Chapman).

Tesori explained the purpose of these anthropomorphized appliances. "They don't talk in the sense that the cheese grater dances, as in Beauty and the Beast. The things don't have a life of their own. They're a reflection of the character of Caroline, who runs these machines. Her world is in this incredibly small, incredibly hot basement of the Gellmans, unusual for Louisiana, because nothing is underground. It's all water underneath. None of the houses in Lake Charles [where the Gellmans live] have basements except this house. The idea of what she has not been able to do, or wants to do, or dreams of, can not be fit into this small room. These machines are part of her."

"I think she's a woman who is bigger than the life she is given to live," said Pinkins, examining her role. "Probably, she could have been a big person in the Civil Rights movement, but it didn't come through Lake Charles, Louisiana. Her struggle is she has all this power and capability, but her choices are very limited. The journey she takes is through the change, the money the little boy leaves in his pockets."

As Pinkins explains the plot, the stepmother is irritated by Noah's habit of leaving spare change in his pockets. Rose was brought up to understand the value of money, and is irked by the kid's seeming disrespect for it. Her solution is to ask Caroline to take whatever money she finds in the pockets and keep it; the boy is thus punished for his carelessness. Caroline resists the idea, but poverty impels her to retrieve a few coins here and there. When the amount of money Noah leaves in his pockets increases, however, the maid finds herself in a moral quandary.

Tickets are $60. Call (212) 239-6200.

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