Caroline, the African-American maid of Caroline, or Change , spends most of her days doing laundry in a basement in Louisiana, circa 1963. There she communicates her despair in harmony with a singing radio and washing machine. When the musical, written by Tony Kushner and composed by Jeanine Tesori, opened in New York in 2003, the critics were both impressed and confused. It’s not often that the dramatis personae of a serious, sung-through stage work include inanimate objects, not to mention a warbling moon. Tesori calls the piece a “folk opera. It takes its behavior from opera and plays, but it’s a musical.”
Caroline gets its Boston premiere next week courtesy of SpeakEasy Stage Company, in association with North Shore Music Theatre. Cast as Caroline is Boston playwright, producer, director, and award-winning actor Jacqui Parker, but the plum role wasn’t just handed to her. Despite having appeared in the musical Crowns earlier this season, Parker is not known for her vocal ability. “I had to work hard to get this role. I had three callbacks and then had to wait for the phone call.”
Despite growing up in a musical family, Parker decided early on that she didn’t want to make a reputation on her voice. “We always sang. You come to our house at holidays and we’ll be singing. As an actress of color, I was afraid that people would call me only for singing roles. I wasn’t going to sell that part of me. But after I heard the music for Caroline , I said, ‘Yes.’ It wasn’t just the music; it was the soul of who she was.”
Based loosely on Kushner’s childhood in the South, Caroline follows the relationship of a maid and her employers, a Jewish family with a young son named Noah. Caroline and Noah share a deep sadness: Noah’s at the loss of his mother, divorced mother of four Caroline’s at the failure of her dreams. Although the civil-rights movement is changing American society, life for Caroline and Noah is constricted by their circumstances. “It is Caroline’s story,” Parker says, “but I think it’s also Noah’s story. It’s the relationship they share to survive.
“In many ways, I know Caroline. It’s very much like my mother and my grandmother. Both of them were maids for short periods of time. I was 10 years old when I first noticed that when my mother came home she’d be so tired. But she was not a woman who would sit at the dinner table and sing the woe-is-me blues. She went on to finish college and get a master’s degree. Caroline to me is that sacrifice that has often been made in the black community. Caroline is like Dr. King and all those women, [sacrificing] so the next generation can have something better. If my mother hadn’t made those sacrifices, I never would have had the self-confidence to be an actor.
“Some of my friends have said, ’Jacqui, you’re going to play a maid?’ I said, ‘You don’t know this maid!’ ”
CAROLINE, OR CHANGE | Roberts Studio Theatre, Calderwood Pavilion at the BCA, 527 Tremont St, Boston | $44-$48; $10 student rush | 617.933.8600 or www.BostonTheatreScene.com