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Sharon D. Clarke on Why Audiences Need ‘Caroline, or Change’ Now

27 November 2018 by Marianka Swain
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Sharon D. Clarke in ‘Caroline, or Change.’ (Photographed by Marc Brenner)

Sharon D. Clarke is enjoying the ride of a lifetime in Michael Longhurst’s revival of “Caroline, or Change.” The show was a smash at Chichester Festival Theatre in 2017, then it played to adoring Hampstead Theatre audiences early this year, and now the musical is playing in the West End at the Playhouse Theatre through 6 April.

“It’s been fabulous!” she says. “I’m really proud that we’re back doing ‘Caroline,’ and I’m so pleased that more people will get to see it.”

Set in 1963 Louisiana, the story follows Caroline, a maid working for a Jewish family. The drama begins when her employer Rose tells Caroline she can keep any of stepson Noah’s loose change that she finds in his pockets when she does laundry – and this microcosmic domestic tale thoughtfully articulates wider racial, class, and generational tensions.

Clarke saw the musical, which is written by Tony Kushner and Jeanine Tesori, for the first time at the National Theatre in 2006, and was immediately drawn to the character.

“I remember thinking that was a tour de force of a role, but I never thought I would be doing it,” Clarke says. She and the company did a lot of research into the South in the 1960s when they were first preparing for the production.

“We looked at the time frame, the Civil Rights Movement, Martin Luther King coming in, how all of that would have affected Caroline as a young girl reclaiming herself,” Clarke explains. Her most valuable resource? Her parents.

“My parents talked to me a lot about that time. I know the British version, of them in the ’50s dealing with Teddy boys and skinheads. It was interesting getting a sense of the other side of the pond,” she says, noting that she drew inspiration from her mother.

“My mum was a seamstress, and she worked with a Jewish company,” she adds. “Her boss was very good to her, as the only black woman in that office, but she knew she had to prove herself to all these white coworkers who didn’t want her around. She also told me when she moved into our street, a woman asked, ‘What’s it like for you living in a house?’ Huh? ‘Well, you’ve lived in caves.’ So my mum took out a picture of her big house in Jamaica, all these verandas, and that woman never spoke to her again.”

Clarke uses moments in the show as teaching moments for the younger members of the cast, particularly Isaac Forward, Aaron Gelkoff, and Jack Meredith who alternate in the role of Noah.

“We’ve got nine young boys in the cast, and of course they’ve got no concept of this,” Clarke said. “Doing things like the fight scene between Caroline and Noah, that’s been an education for them to understand what that means, her socioeconomic dealings, and how that little bit of change would affect her. Just a nickel to Noah might mean Caroline buying glasses for one of her kids.”

And Clarke relishes every moment working with the young cast. “They’re brilliant to have around – lots of spontaneity! They’ve got this new, keen, eager energy, bounding around the room. It’s a pleasure to be part of that.”

‘Caroline, or Change’ (Photographed by Marc Brenner)

Another pleasure for Clarke is tackling Jeanine Tesori’s rich score. “It’s not a normal, everyday musical score – audiences have had to get their heads round that a bit– but it’s an absolute joy,” Clarke said of the Motown- and folk-infused tuner, which she describes as “rousing and joyous and painful and haunting and melodic.” “As a performer, you can’t rest on your laurels with this one – you have to get in its skin. It’s not easy to learn, but once it’s under your belt, it’s like nothing else. What Jeanine has done is give you the complete utter emotional roadmap – you never have to think ‘What should I be feeling?’”

Her favourite number in the show is “Salty Teardrops,” sung by the Supremes-esque trio of actors representing The Radio. “The harmonies, the arrangement are wonderful, and it really wraps up Caroline’s feelings throughout the whole show – plus it’s just beautifully sung by the ladies,” she says.

Clarke really focuses on capturing Caroline’s emotions, particularly since the character keeps her feelings to herself as much as she can. The music helps her reveal the nuances.

“I don’t want the audience to just see an angry woman. There are layers to it, why she’s angry, where that’s come from,” she says. “She’s a single mother trying to eke out a living to support four kids, and she’s also grieving because she’s lost the love of her life.”

Now that the musical is playing in the West End, Sharon hopes the show attracts “as diverse an audience as possible – all ages, colours, religions, everything.”

“At its heart, it’s a story about what a mother will do for her kids, which everyone can understand,” she says. “That applies to Rose too, in the Jewish Gellman family, who’s trying to fit into the household and run it with all the love she can, and get her husband and stepson out of their grief. But she’s a New Yorker in Louisiana – just the fact they have this maid is strange to her. So it’s women trying to deal with the situations they’re in.”

And even though it’s a quintessentially American story, Clarke thinks British audiences can learn from the show.

“It’s a universal tale and you can come at it from any angle,” she says.  “I think audiences are interested to learn this story, this slice of history, they can see it via a British lens too – and then there’s this human struggle at the heart of it with a mother trying to do right by her kids, and herself.”

And Clarke knows how rare it is to find a role like this onstage, and she hopes her performance paves the way for other women to take the lead and create change through theater.

“As a black woman, normally you wouldn’t get that kind of voice – she’d have to be the big, aspirational icon, not someone handling the everyday workings of life,” Clarke says. “To put that across to a wider audience, I’m very excited about that, and I’m proud to be leading this show with all my girls onstage.”