Sometimes God Eats People: “Caroline or Change”


L to R: Pier Lamia Porter* as “The Washing Machine”, Davron S. Monroe* as “The Dryer” and Yewande Odetoyinbo* as “Caroline Thibodeaux” ; Photograph: Sharman Altshuler

Presented by Moonbox Productions
Book and lyrics by Tony Kushner
Score by Jeanine Tesori
Directed by Allison Olivia Choat
Music directed by Dan Rodriguez
Choreography by Yewande Odetoyinbo

April 20 – May 11, 2019
The Stanford Calderwood Pavilion
Boston Center for the Arts
Boston, MA
Moonbox on Facebook

Critique by Kitty Drexel

(Boston, MA) It isn’t true that money can’t buy happiness. Science, as dressed in commercially digestible articles from Time or Entrepreneur, told us in 2017 that happiness begins at an income that covers payment of non-negotiable needs such as food, rent, and other expenses. That amount was approximated between $50,000 – $75,000. Anything less or more than fiscal solvency lowers our quality of life. Minimum wage is still $7.25. And the 1% wonder why the 99% are angry all the time.   

Caroline or Change is about a poor, Black woman raising four kids on her own in 1963 at the peak of the Civil Rights movement in Louisiana. She’s a maid in the Gellman household where she makes $30 a week (roughly $250/week in 2019) and it’s not enough. Caroline Thibodeaux (Yewande Odetoyinbo) isn’t paid enough to deal with any of the nonsense like throws at her but she does it anyway. 

Noah Gellman (Ben Choi-Harris) has a bad habit of leaving his change in his pockets. Rose Stopnick Gellman (Sarah Kornfeld) implements a rule that Caroline may keep any change she finds in Noah’s pockets. Like any person living under the poverty line, Caroline gobbles up that change like a kid taking the Stanford marshmallow test. It buys momentary, temporary happiness. Noah’s capacity to process right, wrong, and empathy come to a head when he accidentally leaves $20 in his pockets. Caroline has to make a choice: does she follow the new rule or does she give it back? No one wins when she makes her choice.

All of the vocals are killer in this production. They are by far better than the 2004 Broadway cast recording (which is very good). But, none of them match the powerhouse lyricism of Odetoyinbo.  The score carries elements of Motown and Gospel. Odetoyinbo sings it like opera. Caroline is a woman who wears her exhaustion on her sleeve and has no energy left for performing niceness for her employers. This portrayal heavies the soul with its sincerity.

Truly Pier Lamia Porter, Davron S. Monroe, Maria Hendricks, Aliyah Harris, and Lovely Hoffman give great life to their characters. Kushner and Tesori request their cast to portray inanimate objects that deliver bad news or set the tone of their scenes. They are Caroline’s only companions for most of her day. Their performances as those objects deliver joy in unhappy circumstances.

The set design Janie E. Howland recalls the upstairs/downstairs class unbalance of period dramas. Non-Gellman family members or actors of color only navigate the upstairs level if they are working in or leaving the Gellman house. Otherwise, they are on the floor level, the level recognized as the basement, the bus or the Thibodeaux home. Even the musicians get to be on the second level. It’s quite telling who gets to be seen and how.

I am uncomfortable reviewing children. There is so much already in this world to take advantage of their innocence and naivety. A blog shouldn’t make or break a child’s day. That being said, the children in this production are wonderful performers. Should they make the choice to pursue an artist’s lifestyle, I hope they find many opportunities to do so.

The costuming design of Joelle Fontaine is exquisite. From the shower poof fascinators on the Radios’ heads to the gown that sparkled each time the Moon (Pier Lamia Porter) gestured, Fontaine’s work is exceptional in every detail. The cast looked fantastic and the clothing is artful. Fontaine owns a fashion label, Kréyol. Please see more of here work and her fashions for sale HERE.

There are class, race, fiscal, religious and other social biases on display in Caroline or Change. Its commentary is multi-faceted. The Gellman family is Jewish living in Louisiana during a time when it was still conventionally acceptable to be casually anti-semitic. The Gellman family faced social backlash for their existence but it wasn’t illegal. Caroline, on the other hand, couldn’t even vote. Color-based racism was considered standard. The lifestyle discrepancies because of this racism are horrifying but they aren’t antiquated. A walk into parts of East Somerville proves that.  

Caroline or Change is a beautiful musical that won’t necessarily suit all viewers. It defies the traditional musical theatre genre with its through-composition and fantastical elements. It isn’t catchy like Fun Home or as age defining as Angels in America. It’s its own beast. Audience members should know that before attending. Please do your proper research to discover if you are one of those viewers.   

Moonbox is partnering with UTEC. UTEC is dedicated to helping young adults ages 17-25 overcome the very real challenges of poverty, gang involvement, unemployment, and cultural barriers that are pervasive in our service communities. When these young adults succeed, the community sees the greatest positive impact on public safety, public health and economic development. For more information, visit: www.UTECinc.org.

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