By Jane Recker
There are two types of angry people.
There are the people who wear their hearts on their sleeve and explode at the slightest provocation. While these bouts of anger can be scary to the young, by maturity most figure out there’s more smoke than fire in this outbursts.
Then there’s the other type; the kind that bottle their rage. Like a dormant volcano, years of hurt and anger boil beneath a seemingly placid surface, until, one day, something snaps. Then, like a tea kettle slowly rising to a scream, the anger begins to present itself first in bitingly quiet, insidious comments, then, finally, in a presentation of white hot, unadulterated rage.
Hell hath no fury like a private person pushed to their tipping point.
Caroline Thibodeaux, the protagonist of Firebrand Theatre’s (in partnership with Timeline Theatre) Caroline or Change is one of these latter people. Exquisitely played by Rashada Dawan, the show follows Caroline’s struggle to embrace a changing world when she herself is stuck in a rut.
Set in Lake Charles, Louisiana, Caroline is a maid to the Gellman family, comprised of the nervous and quirky Stuart (Jonathan Schwart), his new wife, Rose (Blair Robertson), who tries to put on a proper face but aches for the familiarity of her Upper West Side home, and Stuart’s son, Noah (Alejandro Medina), an odd and dreamy little boy processing the death of his mother.
While Caroline works all day in the basement, she has the personifications of the washing machine, the dryer and the radio to keep her company (not to mention entertained by their glitzy period outfits that add a touch of glamour to the production.) Outside, there’s her friend Dotty (Nicole Michelle Haskins), her three children and the ever-watching personification of the moon.
The simplicity of the set lets these many human and non-human relationships flourish onstage. Designed to look like a split-level house of rustic wood and brick, there is still ample opportunity for beauty, as in a scene where Tyler Symone – playing the moon in a silken cape of milk white and star-studded navy – is enveloped in starlight and moonglow; a perfect marriage of Lauren Nichol’s scenic design, Cat Wilson’s lighting design and Kotryna Hilko’s costume design.
It’s one of the few tranquil moments in this powerful musical, fabulously directed by Lili-Anne Brown. Stellar singing chops across the board help add to the drama. Bre Jacobs brings a piercing, clear soprano belt to the role of Caroline’s daughter, Emmie, as she tries to figure out what it means to be a black teenager in the ‘60s. Haskins has a rounded, mellow tone as Dotty. And, of course, Dawan as Caroline brings the full musical range to the table; able to loudly plead to God for mercy in one moment, then quietly lament her fate in the next.
While the majority of the show is centered around Caroline’s inability to pursue her dreams, the motif of change is explored in many ways through the show. The Gellman family must all learn how to be a family, Emmie has to come to understand the sacrifices her mother makes for her, and all around them the world continues to change and evolve.
All change except Caroline. After divorcing an abusive husband, leaving her to raise four children on her own, Caroline has no choice but to put her dreams on hold and continue working as a maid, lest her family starve. Dawan carries an anger and resentment for an unjust world with her throughout the entire show that’s implicitly perceptible to the entire audience.
And then, Caroline snaps. After lashing out at Noah and telling him he’d go to hell, Caroline goes to church and prays for forgiveness and strength to return back to her hated job and provide for her family. Dawan’s “Lot’s Wife” musical soliloquy is her own personal “Rose’s Turn,” hair flying askew, face in mourning, arms thrown open wide, pleading for help. It’s a powerful, impassioned performance that brings the audience to their feet.
Above all, Caroline or Change is a story of strong women fighting for the right to thrive, not just survive. It’s in line with Firebrand Theatre’s mission. As the world’s first feminist equity musical theatre company, Firebrand is committed to producing shows featuring strong women, produced and designed by strong women behind the scenes.
Given the current disenfranchisement of female voices in D.C., it’s refreshing and incredibly empowering to see an almost all-female cast and production team absolutely own the stage and assert their right to create incredible art.
Firebrand Theatre in partnership with Timeline Theatre, presents “Caroline or Change” through November 11 at The Den Theatre’s Heath Main Stage, 1331 N. Milwaukee Avenue, Chicago. More information and tickets are available here.