Caroline, Or Change at Round House Theatre (review)

Caroline, or Change continues the momentum of a powerhouse season at Round House Theatre.  Drawn from the personal reflections of Tony Kushner, it encompasses racial and societal pressures of the 1960s in a story of a youngster dealing with the loss of his mother who finds comfort and solace in the care of a sullen household maid.
Caroline (Nova Y. Paton) makes no excuses for keeping to herself sequestered in the basement to complete her menial tasks.  Yes, she comes across as angry and discontent with a thrust out jawline that won’t quit.  Everyone sees it, they know it’s part of who she is.  She’s been hurt and disappointed and can’t nothing change that.  So, she mechanically moves through each day under a cloud of perpetual gloom and doesn’t mind what anybody says about it.

(l-r) Theresa Cunningham (The Washing Machine), Nova Y. Payton (Caroline), Olivia Russell, Kara-Tameika Watkins, and Felicia Curry (The Radio) in Round House Theatre’s production of Caroline, Or Change (Photo: Grace Toulotte)

Caroline’s world consists of the washer, dryer and radio and all of these are personified as dominant items in her daily routine. These ensemble characters both reflect and support Caroline’s inner world and come to life like nothing you’ve ever seen.  Theresa Cunningham plays the washing machine in full washer woman regalia, pink roller curlers peeking out from under her head scarf and she can belt out a holler like nobody’s business.

Felicia Curry, Olivia Russell and Kara-Tameika Watkins function as the radio with Matthew Gardiner’s flashy Dreamgirl choreography and golden glittery costumes.   Their sweet vocals and smooth moves brighten the dreary basement and keep Caroline company.  And then there’s that Lord-have-mercy treacherous smooth talking drenched in seduction and maliciousness dryer played by V. Savoy Mcllwain. What that man can do with his hips thrusting, then crouched in saber tooth tiger like position ready to pounce must be seen to be believed.  The dryer tumbles and can overheat and Mcllwain portrays the power with barely contained passion and fury.

Nova Y. Payton (Caroline Thibodeaux) and V. Savoy McIlwain (The Dryer) in Round House Theatre’s production of Caroline, Or Change (Photo: Grace Toulotte)

Griffin McCahill is a talented young Noah who can keep up with the production’s complex tonality like a pro.  Will Gartshore disappears into his role as the Dad and Dorea Schmidt is a wonderfully determined Rose Stopnick Gellman, aching to support Noah if only he would let her in.

Kushner is renowned for being able to dig into the interior workings of characters, and his artistry is in over drive in Caroline, or Change.

Noah gets subliminal pleasure when he considers himself helping Caroline by leaving loose change in his pockets since she’s been instructed to keep anything she finds.  The dynamics change when Noah mistakenly leaves a $20 bill, a gift from his Grandfather, and demands that Caroline, who has saved the bill from destruction, return it to him. Jangling change in his pocket is one thing, intentional and meant for good.  Her keeping his special gift, though, goes beyond his planned benevolent intentions and he reacts with uncontrolled fury. The characters are at a stand-off for what each believes is innately right and just.  The tension comes through in the music, and ultimately words are hurled at each other in mean and hurtful tones that can’t be snatched back.  Once they’re out there, everything changes and Noah can tell he’s stepped over a line.  Caroline returns the bill, but it means nothing to Noah now that he knows he’s pushed her out of his life.

Nova Y. Payton (Caroline) and Griffin “Fin” McCahill (Noah ) in Round House Theatre’s production of Caroline, Or Change (Photo: Grace Toulotte)


She doesn’t come to work for days and the music changes to sullen, brooding and melancholy as she deals with her own inner turmoil of sadness and despair.  What Payton does in sorting through her pain in these passages is a passionate work of art.

I’ve seen a previous production and wondered what the acclaim for the show was all about. Maybe it took a few years for my own development, maybe it’s the current tumultuous time, or maybe it’s just this stellar cast led by Payton digging into depths of her character’s soul with piercingly beautiful vocals, enough to break your heart. 

Want to go?

Caroline, Or Change

closes February 26, 2017
Details and tickets

Whatever it is, something happens up there as the character wrestles with her limited choices, her sense of self, defies wallowing in remorse and defines her own reality.  When she returns in her maid’s outfit, the household hasn’t changed, but she has—her expression is more accepting and her stance is more settled.  Her daughter, played beautifully by Korinn Walfall, represents the next generation which is making change happen all around them, then and now.

The casting is exquisite with no small parts as seen by Caroline’s youngsters who scamper along thankful for each precious coin she finds.  All the voices ring out beautifully under music direction of Jon Kalbfleisch who handles jazzy riffs, patches of modern atonality and a several sweet Yiddish-flavored moments with ease.  Having seasoned performers like Naomi Jacobson, John Lescault and Scott Sedar on board adds to the excellent caliber of the entire production.

Costume designer Frank Labovitz worked overtime assuring a 1960’s style for the entire ensemble and creative interpretation for the “personified” performers. Caroline wears her white dress and apron outfit like its prison-garb while the radio girls strut along in sleek golden shimmery attire.

The lighting by Grant Wilcoxen reflects the sentiments and inner turmoil of the characters, including the inanimate ones.  The moon, beautifully rendered by Delores King Williams, was showcased in a brilliant evening spot that sparkled in contrast to the somber passages.  The three-tiered set by Jason Sherwood rotates effortlessly with small alcoves tucked in platforms where characters can take a stand. At one point Rose Gellman tagged behind Noah arguing her point, both of them hustled up all three spiraling flights singing their lines and staying in character, like it was the easiest thing in the world.

Caroline, or Change is immersed in changes evoked by the Civil Rights movement, class struggles, the racial divide, and the emerging black power movement fomenting in the younger generation.  It’s a perfect vehicle to showcase the incredible artistry in the metro area and a timely reminder about the power of the individual to make internal choices to keep on keeping on.


Caroline, or Change .  Music By Jeanine Tesori . Books and Lyrics by Tony Kushner . Directed and Choreographed by Matthew Gardiner . Cast: Nova Y. Payton, Theresa Cunningham, Felicia Curry, Olivia Russell, Kara-Tameika Watkins, Griffin McCall, V. Savoy Mcllwain, Naomi Jacobson, John Lescault, Dorea Schmidt, Will Gartshore, Awa Sal Secka, Delores King Williams, Korinn Walfall, Elijah Mayo, Micah Tate, Scott Sedar . Lighting Design: Grant Wilcoxen . Scenic Design: Jason Sherwood . Costume Design: Frank Labovitz . Sound Design: Fitz Patton . Stage Manager:  Che Wernsman . Produced by Round House Theatre . Reviewed by Debbie Minter Jackson.

Debbie Minter Jackson About Debbie Minter Jackson

Debbie Minter Jackson is a writer and has performed in musical theater for decades. Originally from Chicago, she has hit stages throughout the Midwest and the Washington, D.C. area including the Kennedy Center in productions with the legendary Mike Malone. Her scripts have been commissioned and produced by the old Source Theater and festivals in New York. She is a member of the play reading and discussion group Footlights and the Black Women Playwrights’ Group. By day she happily works in a federal public health agency as a Senior Program Analyst and is in blissful partnership with her Bill.


  1. Edward Kelty says:

    Was there a non-musical version done in Washington some time ago? Three groups of us recall seeing it before, but cannot remember where or when.

    Great production with wonderful music, though words sometimes drowned out by the over-amplification common to the area’s smaller theaters.



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