Firebrand Theatre and Timeline Theatre Present CAROLINE, OR CHANGE Review – Magical Lens on Black Realities in ‘60s South

Editor’s Note:  Read related interviews in the George Floyd: In Memoriam roundup.

Firebrand Theatre CAROLINE, OR CHANGE
Rashada Dawan in title role of Caroline Thibodeaux

Imagine beaming with joy at a hip-shaking washing machine (Tyler Symone) and add to that  three Motown girl group styled singing and dancing Radios, replete with now banned radioactive luminescent dials of the 60's (Roberta Burke, De’Jah Jerval, and Emma Sipora Tyler).

Add to that vision, one of Micheal Lovette’s rich baritone singing in call and response styled song as the hellish dryer emitting heat, with a voice that commands the performance space and rivets you in place.

It’s difficult for this writer to imagine that any audience member will not be totally charmed by these early scenes and songs. Director Lili-Anne Brown and Music Director Andra Velis Simon seem to have mastered every detail to help weave us in and out of the magical lens that informs this script and lyrics by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tony Kushner.

Firebrand Theatre and Timeline Theatre Casts Powerhouse in Title Role

Truth to tell, the musical magic begins right from the start when the powerhouse voice of Rashada Dawan as Caroline Thibodeaux brings us into her basement world, where she does the wash and irons for the Jewish family for whom she is the maid. It’s hellishly hot there, but it is a place to sometimes daydream of meeting Nat King Cole, or to sometimes ruminate over disappointments like her divorce. For her employer’s son Noah Gellman, played with uncanny perfection by sixth grader Alejandro Medina, the basement is also a place where he can get a chance to light Caroline’s daily cigarette and steal away from his father, step-mother and grief over his mother’s recent death.

The relationship between Caroline and Noah and the entire Gellman family is where this story of the tensions between classes and races plays out, at a time and place where the world was beginning to be turned upside down, starting with a statue of a Confederate soldier in the town center.

This is one of those musicals that feels more like an opera (score by Jeanine Tesori) and where you find yourself almost gasping at the brilliant performances one after another. On opening night there was in fact an audible “aww…” when adorable Lyric K. Sims who plays Caroline’s youngest child comes on stage. She and her two sibling characters—Emmie played by Bre Jacobs and Jackie played by Princess Isis Z. Lang— sing and dance with style, and especially with Medina in “Roosevelt Petrucius Coleslaw”, a song which serves as somewhat of a pressure relief valve on the play’s mounting tensions.

College Junior Jacobs actually carries a lot of the dramatic weight in the plot turn, and in this writer’s view has the acting chops up to the task. Similarly, whenever Nicole Michelle Haskins who plays Caroline’s friend Dotty --whose happiness annoys depressed and angry Caroline beyond measure‑-opens up her mouth to sing we know we are in for a treat. We also begin to long for Tyler Symone to return as the Moon, another character she plays. And what can you say about the charming brightly smiling and accenting songs with hips Radios, so expertly clad in glamorous girl-group garb (Costume Designer: Kotryna Hilko), other than “PLEASE, don’t stop performing as a trio when this run ends!” For this writer, it’s especially the many musical duets and trios peppering the score that transport the most.

And for anyone raised in Jewish-American culture of the playwright’s era, as this writer was, his portrayal of the Gelmans and their relations give an expertly drawn topographic map of Jewish guilt, angst and to boot a hilarious burlesque of their denials of racial privilege. Kushner’s caricature characters are classic pearls for the ages.

All this talent on the stage, and in the script and score! Yet, this reviewer guesses it will be the tour de force performance by Rashada Dawan in the title role bookending this production that will cling to your memory banks forever. That is the first among first reasons CAROLINE, OR CHANGE is a must-see performance.


Note: This is now added to the Picture this Post round up of BEST PLAYS IN CHICAGO, where it will remain until the end of the run. Click here to read — Top Picks for Theater in Chicago NOW – Chicago Plays PICTURE THIS POST Loves.


Music: Jeanine Tesori
Book & Lyrics: Tony Kushner
Director: Lili-Anne Brown
Music Director: Andra Velis Simon

Cast: Rashada Dawan as Caroline with Roberta Burke as Radio 3,
Kevin M. Grubb as Grandpa Gellman, Nicole Michelle Haskins as Dotty, Rosalind Hurwitz as
Grandma Gellman, Bre Jacobs as Emmie, Jah Jervai as Radio 1, Michael Kingston as Mr.
Stopnick, Princess Isis Z. Lang as Jackie, Micheal Lovette as Bus/Dryer, Alejandro Medina as
Noah, Blair Robertson as Rose, Jonathan Schwart as Stuart, Lyric K. Sims as Joe, Tyler Symone
as Moon/Washer and Emma Sipora Tyler as Radio 2.

Production Team:  Lauren Nichols (scenic design),
Kotryna Hilko (costume design), Cat Wilson (lighting design), Victoria Deiorio (sound design),
Lacie Hexom (props design), Brigitte Ditmars (choreographer, associate director), Ethan Deppe
(electronic music design), David Samba and Amanda Sager (associate sound design), Fatima
Sowe (dramaturg), Lauren Katz (associate dramaturg), Harmony France (producer), Abigail Reed
(technical director), Benjamin Baylon and Heather Larkin (production managers), Adelina
Feldman-Schultz (casting director), Serena Sandoval (wardrobe), Giselle Castro (sound operator),
Joshanna Robinson (run crew, child wrangler), Richie Vavrina (master electrician), JC Widman
(stage manager) and Kirby Gibson (assistant stage manager).

 Band: Andra Velis Simon (keyboards/conductor), Yulia Block (percussion), Kim Lawson (violin) Emily Beisel (reeds) and Myles Bacon (guitars).


Thru November 11, 2018

Thursdays, Fridays & Saturdays at 7:30 pm
Sundays at 3 pm


The Den Theatre's Heath Main Stage
1331 N. Milwaukee Ave


$45 (student and industry discounts available)

For tickets visit the Firebrand Theatre website.


Photos: Marisa KM


Note: Picture This Post reviews are excerpted by Theatre in Chicago

Editor's Note and Full Disclosure:  The Associate Dramaturge for this production is up and coming Director Lauren Katz, who is also a longstanding Picture this Post writer.  The  museum quality display that she co-created in the back of the theater is also highly recommended, and similar in quality and scope to those regular Chicago theater goers expect from Timeline Theatre- a co-presenter of this production.

Amy Munice

About the Author: Amy Munice

Amy Munice is Editor-in-Chief and Co-Publisher of Picture This Post. She covers books, dance, film, theater, music, museums and travel. Prior to founding Picture This Post, Amy was a freelance writer and global PR specialist for decades—writing and ghostwriting thousands of articles and promotional communications on a wide range of technical and not-so-technical topics.


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