Jannie Jones as Caroline in WBTT's Caroline or Change, flanked by The Washing Machine (Vallea E. Woodbury) and The Radio (Toddra Brunson, Annaya Osborn, Stephanie Zandra).

As is fitting for its brand-new, expanded, updated, renovated home, Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe leads off its 2020 season with an ambitious, first-time local production of the Tony-nominated musical Caroline, or Change, with book and lyrics by Tony Kushner (Angels in America) and a wide-ranging score by Jeanine Tesori (Fun Home).

It’s a choice that seems designed to say, “Look at us now,” for its larger than usual cast and its vocal and dramatic demands. Fortunately, WBTT has a strong team to face the challenge, including music director Nikki Ervin and director-choreographer Jim Weaver.

That team is led onstage by Jannie Jones in the title role, as a 39-year-old African-American maid working in Lake Charles, Louisiana in 1963. (Playwright Kushner grew up there, and the book is somewhat autobiographical.) Caroline, a divorcee, has had her heart broken by a once loving husband who turned abusive. If that weren’t enough, she’s struggling just to feed and clothe the three children she has still living with her.

Her eldest son is off in Vietnam, and that and the assassination of President John F. Kennedy place us solidly in a period of turmoil in the country. Caroline’s teen daughter, Emmie (Alexis Ijeoma Nwokoji), is in the midst of it, wanting to take a spirited stand on civil rights. But for Caroline, just getting through each day’s laundry, cleaning and dealing with the young son of her Jewish employer, Noah (Tommy Lelyo, who alternates the role with Charles Shoemaker and was impressive on opening night), is all she can handle.

Noah has his own issues—the loss of a beloved mother, a replacement stepmother, Rose (Eliza Engle), and a musician father (Courtney Dease) who can’t come out of his own grief enough to help his son. Caroline is anything but attentive to Noah, but she’s still a parent, and he turns to her, deliberately leaving coins in his clothes pockets that she can find and keep to help out financially.

Tommy Lelyo as Noah, Eliza Engle as Rose

But the “change” of the title refers, of course, to more than those coins. For while the winds of change are blowing in the country, Caroline is fighting any change in her own bitter attitude toward life. Things come to a head when she and Noah, in a moment of anger, end up hurling racial insults at each other.

The play is divided into scenes with names like Washer/Dryer—those appliances are portrayed by actors, as is the moon—Ironing, The Bleach Cup and The Chanukah Party. In the latter, Rose’s longtime socialist father and Emmie argue over the nonviolent approach of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.; John Lombardi delivers a memorable performance in a brief role.

Alexis Ijeoma Nwokoji, Kenyon Edwards, Samuel Waite and Jones

But most of the drama is dominated by Caroline, Noah and Rose, propelled by Tesori’s sung-through score. There’s almost no spoken dialogue, and while the mix of Motown, klezmer, rock, blues and more is effective and stirring, there are also times when the complex combination of lyrics and music makes it hard to understand. At least that’s true if you’re a newcomer to the show, as I am. The second act becomes clearer in its action, but it may take a while for audiences to figure things out in the first half.

The production certainly draws us in, though, largely because of Jones’ powerhouse performance.

Caroline, or Change, continues through Feb. 16 at WBTT; call 366-1505 or visit westcoastblacktheatre.org for tickets.

 

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