Q&A with Sharon D. Clarke on Caroline, or Change: ‘It’s a show about grief, loss, change and hope, but all of this is driven by love.’

For the first interview of 2019 Anthony Walker-Cook spoke with Sharon D. Clarke, whose critically acclaimed portrayal of Caroline is sure to usher a series of awards. Delving into the historical period the show represents, Clarke reveals the widen movements of this powerful musical.

AWC: What attracted you to the role and show?
SC: I’d seen Caroline, or Change at the National Theatre in 2006 and loved the show. I thought it was a phenomenal role, but at the time I didn’t think I’d ever play it nor did I have a hankering to play it. I was happy to just watch it. But when Daniel Evans called me and said it was the first thing he wanted to do to open his season at Chichester I said ‘yes’, of course’. 

How has the show changed for this production and in its transfer from Chichester?
The writing and music is the same, but the production is different. Michael Longhurst’s staging is different, as are the relationships between Caroline and the appliances. At the National, Caroline did not have a direct relationship with the appliances, it was more like she was imagining them in her head and they were behind her and talked to her. 
In Michael’s production my Caroline has a direct relationship, which gives her another family. In the old production you only really saw her talk with the Gellmans, but Michael’s change melds the surrealism and naturalism of the show and highlights how the appliances are her head, heart, anger and sexual repression in a way that audiences can see and understand. I like the change: it makes it seem not as lonely a place for Caroline. I look the washing machine in the eyes, which picks me up, and as a performer the change deepens the relationship.

Over the course of rehearsals, what did you learn about Caroline? In as positive a way as possible, she feels a rather ‘ugly’ character (and I mean that in terms of grit and a life of struggle and prejudice), but there feels like there is SO much more to the character than that.
For me, this is a woman struggling in a period of time where she has no control over her life. She was born just as slavery was abolished – in 1963 she is 39 – so she is in a time when black people are still oppressed. The whole submissive and subservient fear was still very much of her culture. She has been a maid since she was 17 and her constant struggle now is to feed her kids. There is a lot of change happening around her, but she cannot go with it. When her friend talks about going to college, Caroline can’t read so there’s no chance of also going, but she can’t get a better job so she cannot earn more money. She is never going to be in the upper echelons of society and her only hope is that her children can rise above it. The only way to get through each day is to put her head down. But that de-humanises and de-sensitises her. And I think she has every right to be angry with her lot, it is never going to get better for her and it is that deepening of understanding for what it was like for black women of the time. I didn’t grow up with the suffering of my parents, who were part of the Windrush generation, but the kind of life Caroline is living has given me such a deeper understanding for women of that time.

Sharon D. Clarke with the ensemble of Caroline, or Change.

You have talked about the ‘melting pot’ of genres of songs in the show – such as chain gang work songs and 60s soul songs – how does this contribute to the show and what sort of history emerges from Caroline, or Change?
Tony [Kushner] wanted to show how change was happening in America at that time. John F Kennedy, the president that wanted to uplift black people from segregation and help them to become equal citizens, is killed in the story. All that hope and aspiration is now gone and has fallen. Then you have the Civil Rights movement growing, with black people calling themselves ‘negro’ to define themselves as black people. 
There are also the crossed paths between black and Jewish people both stateside and in Britain. I grew up knowing a lot of Jewish people and Tony wanted to show that crossing of cultures where those two groups through history – that is, slavery and the Holocaust – understand what that persecution and loss is. Those two groups of people come together in the show and demonstrate how that mix happened. It is also a slice of Tony’s life and how those cultures melded. Hopefully people see what that history was like. You think you have moved on, but you haven’t, and when you think of our Windrush Scandal, with people who were invited here and were being told to return. 
The common theme of history repeating itself offers lessons for audiences, but the types of music indicate era and character themes. When you hear the bassoon you learn it is about Betty [Noah’s mother]: her music reminds characters about her. You always have the theme of the bassoon and the work chain gang comes through for Caroline’s work. It provides emotional indications and character markers and just great music.

We need to talk about ‘Lot’s Wife’, which feels biblical in its language and rhythms. Could you maybe comment on that song as to where it leaves Caroline?
For me, she has vented her spleen. You realise one of the true friendships she has with Noah and Caroline leads to such a hateful exchange but she cannot believe she had that with a child. She does not ask to change, but she asks for release and to let go so she can move on. Her position will not change but she has to find a way of releasing that. ‘Lot’s Wife’ provides that release and then when she next interacts with Noah it is affectionate and loving.

Of the radio, washing machine or tumble-drier, if you could have one of your appliances speak to you, which would it be?
It would always be the washing machine. In our piece the washing machine is her heart and love. Throughout the whole piece the washing machine encourages her. When she has to go to the dryer she looks to the machine and it encourages her. Our backstory for the washing machine in the show is that Caroline and Betty had a great working relationship and that Betty’s last gift to Caroline before she passed was this washing machine. It had seven cycles and it is full of love and energy. I would always choose the washing machine because it’s always about love.

What is the best thing you saw on stage last year?
I really loved Wise Children at the Old Vic. I thought it was beautifully done. Glorious music, it was uplifting, and I loved it.

If you could choose one show from the past to see, what would it be? (the ‘who would you invite to a dinner party’ question for theatre)
Oh my goodness… I think I would like to have been at the all-black version of Carmen Jones. 

I think you’ve just done it, but can you summarise the show in one word?
Yeah, it’s always love. It’s a show about grief, loss, change and hope, but all of this is driven by love. Caroline is still loving the man she had to divorce: she divorced him and she longs for that love. What drives her is a love of her children; even Rose [Noah’s stepmother] is trying to mend the broken family with the little she has through love. One of the final scenes is when Noah and Rose have a proper conversation, and he calls her ‘Rose’ and hugs her, and the set mends itself. The play is about that coming together. 

Our thanks to Sharon for taking the time to talk with London Student and to The Corner Shop PR for organising. Caroline, or Change is at the Playhouse Theatre until the 6th April, 2019.

Production and feature photograph by Helen Maybanks.

Anthony Walker-Cook is a PhD candidate at UCL and is the Theatre editor for London Student. His interests include theatre adaptation, early modern drama, classical myths made modern and all things eighteenth century. For more information please contact: anthony.walker-cook.17@ucl.ac.uk @AntWalker_Cook

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