Lisa Butler understands the trials of being a single parent. She’s been there, working two to three jobs to make ends meet. And she understands the frustration of not even having the time to figure a way out of the situation.
So Butler can relate to the difficult choice facing Caroline Thibodeaux, the character she portrays in the upcoming production of “Caroline, or Change” opening Friday, June 3, at Grand Rapids Civic Theatre. She feels Caroline’s delight of being able to provide her children with meat versus stuffing it so full of bread that it becomes “meat-flavored bread” even if it means getting treated “less than a person” to get the money to buy that meat.
“There is a song that Caroline sings, one of the longer ones that runs several pages in the script,” said Butler. “It goes through about every level of pain, anger and confusion she is feeling and a few days ago, it suddenly just hit me, and I just started to cry.”
Grand Rapids Civic Theatre Artistic Director Bruce Tinker said while he realizes not everyone may be moved the way Butler was, he does hope the powerful musical will have an impact on those who see it, creating a dialog for change.
The production, which is almost entirely relayed through music, combines spirituals, blues, Motown, classical music and Jewish klezmer and folk music with each character represented by a certain type of music. Written by Tony Kushner with music by Jeanine Tesori (“Shrek the Musical”), the story is set in 1963 and centers around Caroline, a black maid, who works for a Jewish family, the Gellmans, in their basement doing the laundry for $30 a week. Unable to afford to give her a raise, the stepmother Rose tells Caroline that she can have the money she finds in the pockets mostly to teach her stepson Noah a lesson about money.
“We have this concept that if something is no good to us or has no value that we just give it to someone who is less fortunate,” Tinker said. “How does that make the person receiving it feel?”
When the lesson goes awry and the ownership of a $20 bill comes into question, the relationship between Caroline and Noah is forever changed.
“Change is hard for everyone,” said Joe Jones, president and CEO of the Grand Rapids Urban League, which is an artistic sponsor for the “Caroline” production. Coincidentally, Butler happens to serve as the Grand Rapids Urban League Director for Center for Health and Wellness.
“It is hard in that it upsets what you know is,” Jones said, adding that everything is changing around Caroline as president John F. Kennedy is assassinated and the non-violent protests organized by Martin Luther King. “The younger generation does not throughly understand that at that time there were repercussions of speaking out or speaking out loud.”
For Caroline, standing by her words would mean losing the income she needs to support her family so she makes the heart wrenching decision to return to the dehumanizing work as a maid.
The musical, Tinker said, was nominated for several 2004 Tony Awards but was somewhat overshadowed by “Wicked” and “Avenue Q.” It did win a Tony for Best Performance by a Featured Actress in a Musical and a Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Music. “However that year it showed that Broadway could succeed on a grand scale with ‘Wicked,’ on a non-human comedic scale with ‘Avenue Q’ and on a very dramatic scale with ‘Caroline,’” Tinker said.
“Caroline, or Change” runs June 3 – 19 at Grand Rapids Civic Theatre, 30 N. Division Ave. Tickets are $18 – $34. For tickets or more information, visit www.GRCT.org or call 616-222-6650.