Sharon D Clarke’s performance of the showstopping musical number “Lot’s Wife” in the second act of Caroline, Or Change will almost certainly be among the Broadway highlights weighed in the minds of Tony Award voters when they cast their ballots for Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role in a Musical. The number, and the performance, are harrowing: Clarke’s character Caroline, the Black maid in an early 1960s Southern White Jewish household, has reached a breaking point of sorts, her years of struggle and loss erupting in one exchange of words with the young Jewish boy she’s all but raised, and the words of hate and cruelty that emerge from deep recesses of characters that had long shared real moments of connection and affection have shaken Caroline to her core.
The exchange in the musical – written by Jean Tsori and Tony Kushner, directed by Michael Longhurst – is prompted by money, a small amount to be sure. Just change, in fact, but it’s enough to dredge up such deep bigotry and resentment that the eruptions surprise even those who mouth the words.
Says young Noah:
There’s a bomb!
President Johnson has built a bomb
special made to kill all Negroes!
I hate you, hate you, kill all Negroes! Really! For true!
I hope he drops his bomb on you!
Noah, Hell is like this basement,
only hotter than this, hotter than August, with the washer and the dryer and the boiler full blast. Hell’s hotter than goose fat, much hotter than that.
Hell’s so hot it makes flesh fry.
And hell’s where Jews go when they die. (She gives Noah the twenty.)
Take your twenty dollars baby.
So long, Noah, good-bye.
Shortly after that exchange, Caroline sings the song that is arguably the emotional core of Caroline, Or Change. In “Lot’s Wife,” she sings:
Murder me God down in that basement, murder my dreams so I stop wantin, murder my hope of him returnin, strangle the pride that make me crazy. Make me forget so I stop grievin.
Scour my skin till I stop feelin.
Take Caroline away cause I can’t be her, take her away I can’t afford her.
Tear out my heart
strangle my soul
turn me to salt
a pillar of salt
Deadline spoke to Clarke about that moment in the play, the audiences’ reactions to those disturbing words, her Tony Award nomination, her long-in-coming success in the United States after a stellar career in UK television and theater, and about the return she’ll make to New York next season in an acclaimed new production of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman.
This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.
The Roundabout Theatre Company revival of Caroline, Or Change, after suspending production due to the 2020 Covid pandemic shutdown, began its limited engagement at Studio 54 on Oct. 8, 2021, and closed Jan. 9, 2022. With music by Jeanine Tesori and lyrics and book by Tony Kushner, the revival was directed by Michael Longhurst. It has been nominated for three Tony Awards: Best Revival of a Musical, Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role in a Musical (Clarke) and Best Costume Design/Musical (Fly Davis).
DEADLINE: First of all, congratulations. Where you were when you found out you’d been nominated?
SHARON D CLARKE: I was home. I’d come back from Spain – we have a house in Spain – and I’d come to England. I was, and still am, completely dumbfounded and overjoyed and ecstatic and in disbelief and just giddy like a schoolgirl. I mean, it’s my debut. It’s the first time I’ve been in Broadway. So, to be seen in that way by the community and for them to say, we see you, is such a mammoth thing, and I’m deeply, deeply honored.
DEADLINE: With the pandemic and the shutdown, was there a time when you thought Caroline, or Change wouldn’t happen?
CLARKE: I was very, very lucky. From the minute we found out that Broadway was going to have to close down, Roundabout had assured the company that whatever happened, when it came back, we would be coming back to do Caroline, or Change. They just told us that they didn’t know when that would be, as no one knew what anything would be, but that when it did happen, that the show would be back on. So, that was something that enabled us, as a company, to have something to look forward to.
And they kept us updated as to, when they thought things might come back, and at one point, it was September. Then I think the next one, it was June, but you know, whenever they thought we could make some kind of headway, they did, and that was very, very comforting and gave us something to work towards, as well, and you know, just keep our spirits up. Because there were so many shows that knew they weren’t going to be coming back, and that’s a hard, hard place to be. We were spared that, luckily.
DEADLINE: I’m wondering how that delay affects your approach to a performance that you already had been playing.
CLARKE: I think it just makes you want to come back stronger, you know? What I said was I do have a chance to do this again. I do get a shot at this, and because it was my Broadway debut, that hasn’t been taken away from me. So, it makes you come back stronger and invigorated and totally encouraged, knowing that Broadway wanted to come back and that the theatre community wanted to be back.
So, it just felt wonderful to be part of that reopening, of the lights turning back on, and being a part of that process.
So, it was wonderful, but I think, also for our particular company, with the subject matter that we were dealing with, having the summer of Black Lives Matter, that was just engrained in us and made us want to tell our stories even more, because those stories were still relevant.
You know, pieces like ours, Caroline, or Change or Trouble in Mind or such other pieces where you’re looking at history repeating itself in that way after Black Lives Matter, those stories need to get told even more because they were still timely. They were still relevant. They were still needing to be talked about. So, I think it just gave everyone extra oomph to be back and to be telling the stories and continuing to hold up the mirror and just say we need change, you know?
DEADLINE: Caroline especially, with Caroline’s daughter protesting and finding a new way of expressing her anger, something other than her mother’s ways, I mean, it almost seemed made to order for our time.
CLARKE: And the sadness is that it’s not.
DEADLINE: Did the approach of the production change because of the Black Lives Matter movement in any way?
CLARKE: It just filtered in. I mean, we were telling the story that we’d been telling. You know, it was the production that had come from London, and when we first opened in London, Mike had decided to put the Confederate statue at the top of the show because it was a British audience, and we knew that they wouldn’t be as familiar with the Confederate story.
So, he put the statue in to kind of highlight that for the British audience, but the thing about that was, that the week that we opened in Chichester was the week of the Charlottesville riots, and so it all just seemed to be making perfect sense. It seemed to be so timely, and I think we just carried that production through. Of course, there were more tweaks and things that you want to do and change, but basically the production was the production, and the fact is that in telling this story, which was written in 2003, about 1963, that was then done in 2006, and then done again in 2016, at each stage, it’s always been relevant because the dialogue in society hasn’t changed. Caroline, Or Change is able to hold up the mirror. Caroline, or Change is set when the Civil Rights Movement is just burgeoning. It’s just coming through, and here we were, again, in 2021 / ’22, with the Black Lives Matter Movement, with that burgeoning and coming through, but having to come through of the same story.
DEADLINE: Caroline’s big number in Act II is called “Lot’s Wife,” I want to dive into that. It comes after Caroline has said something particularly cruel to this young white Jewish boy that she has this connection with. When I saw … the performance I saw, when she first says this horrendous anti-Semitic remark to him, there was this sort of nervous laughter.
And then the audience sort of settled into the reality that Caroline really did just say that, and this isn’t funny. How do you maintain your connection with the audience after you’ve just said something so sort of horrendous to this cute little boy on stage?
CLARKE: Well, first of all, I’ll say that I actually find it quite interesting that you haven’t noted that Noah starts the argument and Caroline finishes it. They both say their hate, but you didn’t mention Noah. Noah started that. He said something hateful to her, and she retaliated, albeit wrongly, but it’s an exchange. It’s two people in pain, two people in pain lashing out through pain, and I always found it very hard that any audience would laugh at that in any way, whether it was nervous, whether it was raucous, whether it was a pitter.
For me, that was always…I just didn’t get it. We had one audience where, in one show, Noah said his hate, and someone shouted out – it was a woman – she shouted out “anti-Semitic!” when Noah said his hate, and I just thought, just wait, you haven’t heard what Caroline’s got to say yet. This is Noah’s comment, and immediately that woman jumped in that saying ‘you can’t make a little boy say that because that’s anti-Semitic.
Noah says I hope he drops his bomb on you, and as Noah said bomb on you, the woman stood up and said “anti-Semitic!” and at that point, I was like, you haven’t heard what Caroline’s got to say. If you think that’s anti-Semitic, because it’d maybe come out of his mouth, you just wait.
Remember, this play was written by a Jewish guy. This is Tony’s take. Now the very next night, after Caroline said her hate, some woman or some person clapped. I mean, to have had one woman say one thing one night and then for someone else to applaud the same line the next night, it just completely floored me.
All I could hang onto was, in Chichester, we did a kids’ matinee, and the children ranged from about, I don’t know, 10 to about 19, and we did this matinee, and when Noah said his hate, all the kids went, ooooh, and when Caroline said her hate, all the kids went, ooooh, and I though that’s it!…that’s the reaction! And we got that from kids, kids who weren’t afraid to show how they felt and show how shocked they felt about it and didn’t feel that they had to laugh nervously. They all responded as one to both comments, and we very, very, very rarely got that with others audiences. And so, again, I have to come back to the hope of children. The hope of children, that they recognized and saw that each character was in so much pain.
The kids being shocked and showing their shock. That was the unusual thing. The laughter was, you know, something we’d experience every night in different levels. You know what I mean? Sometimes there’d be, you know, silence, and then one person would pitter, or you know, like I said, one night, somebody applauded, or some nights, there’d be more laughter, but they were very…I can’t really think of very many nights where an audience, at one time, just went ooooh, and felt that pain.
DEADLINE: Despite the audience reaction, you have to forge on and perform “Lot’s Wife,” which is in a way details the aftermath of the expression of Caroline’s hate, her coming to deal with it. Would that night’s audience reaction be in your head as you perform “Lot’s Wife”?
CLARKE: It’s a weird thing. Generally, no, because it’s about playing the truth of where I am, and because I know where Caroline’s going to go. Sometimes it’s like, okay, that was your reaction, and now you’re going to see what it costs Caroline. If you think what she said is funny in any way, shape, or form, you’re going to see what it costs her. It costs her her faith.
She knows something is not right within herself. She knows she’s growing hard. She knows she’s growing bitter. She says to God, “murder me down in that basement.” You know, I spoke my hate to a child, and you see what that does to her, and I hope that if the audience hasn’t gotten it when the two characters exchange their hate, that they get it when they see what it costs Caroline.
DEADLINE: To me, the genius of the musical is that we suspect neither Caroline or Noah will ever completely come back from those words of hate…
CLARKE: There’s no right or wrong. There’s no villain or villainesses. There’s just emotion. There’s just raw emotion, and everyone is trying to fight to be loved, to be seen, to be heard, you know? Rose is just trying to do her best. She’s misguided, bless her heart. She hasn’t really taken on the fact that Caroline is not called Carolyn. She’s not taken that on board, but in her own sweet way, she thinks she’s trying to do the best she can to teach Noah lessons and to help Caroline.
It’s just about how she chooses to do that, but she’s trying to be accepted into a family. You know, she’s married this man, who was her best friend’s man, and you know, she can tell that he’s still in love and he’s still grieving. The boy won’t talk to her. You know, she’s shunned and ostracized in her own house, in a way, and she’s trying to find ways, and then she lashes out at her dad. So it’s all these things. What Tony has written is so complicated. It seems so simple on the surface, and yet it’s so deep and rich with the whole gamut of emotions and what we go through.
DEADLINE: I don’t want to give the impression that Caroline and Noah have this continually combative relationship. There’s so much playfulness that goes on, too, and this sort of real affection that goes on, so when the exchange does come out, it’s all the more stunning, you know?
CLARKE: You don’t have the shock factor [without the previous connection]. They have little moments together – she lets him light her cigarette. Now that is all kinds of wrong, but it’s their thing. You know what I mean? So, they have that little something, and then there’s days when she’ll blow him smoke rings. Now there’s a night she says no because she’s in a slightly different place herself. Do you know what I mean? But there are some times he’ll say smoke rings, and she’ll blow smoke rings. So when their hate comes out, you want it to come out of the blue. You don’t want to get to that point and go, yeah, I saw that coming.
DEADLINE: Noah and Caroline are never going to be the same people after their exchange, are they? Those words will be with them for the rest of their lives…
CLARKE: They have that exchange afterwards in the “underwater section” [a fantasy scene where the two characters imagine a re-connection] when he asks her a question about them being friends and what’s it like. Noah says What’s it like under water? And she says under water, it’s like something you hear on the radio at night, and they have this really tender exchange, actually. You know, and then Caroline is feeling lighter, more free in a way than the kind of angry, guttural singing that you’ve heard from her overnight, and it’s really tender. I’m trying to say it may not be now, and our relationship has changed, but we’re still here. You know what I mean? GET QUOTE
DEADLINE: Tony hasn’t written a sequel of course, but do you ever wonder, in your own head, what happens after the play stops? What happens to the characters?
CLARKE: Well, for Caroline, she carries on. Puts her head down. Carries on, and puts all her hope into her children. In our ending, you see Emmie on top emulating the statue, and she turns around, and it’s just like, yes, you are the hope. You are the future. She puts it all into the next generation.
DEADLINE: And what I love about that ending, too, is not only is it suggestive of the next generation, but Emmie says ‘I’m the daughter of a maid,” and honors Caroline by name. Such a moving, powerful statement.
CLARKE: She’s been fighting with her mom all evening because she thinks her mom’s a bit overbearing and you know, all those things that kids think at that age, and then when Caroline is just really fearful of her job and of her daughter and she slaps her, that tips Emmie over the edge, and it’s, you know, mother and daughter arguments, quarrels, and all she does is recognize, I think, her mom in herself, and then she goes off and take those qualities forward and fights in a way that her mom can’t fight.
DEADLINE: Do you think you’re finished with Caroline at this point? Is there any chance that we’ll see you revisit this character or this musical?
CLARKE: [Laughs] Where would that be?
DEADLINE: I’m hoping you can tell me. Why don’t they do a movie of it?
CLARKE: I have no idea. Listen, well, that would be the next step. That would be the next step. All I can say is that when I started in Chichester, I signed up for the six weeks in Chichester. That’s where the show was going to be. There was never any promise of it going anywhere else, and that’s the gig. So, that’s what I did. So, everything after has been an absolute gift that keeps on giving. You know, to move from Chichester, then to Hamstead and London, which was near me.
So, I could actually get to work really quickly and then to go into town, which was like, oh my gosh, we’re going into town, and then to hear that the show’s going to Broadway, I mean, it’s just kept on giving. What more can I ask? You know, I’ve now got a Tony nomination with the same show. I mean, it’s giving again. So, you know, if there is a movie, well, hey, I’m so grateful for where I’m at. From what was going to be a six-week gig, I’ve been with it now for five years.
CLARKE: Well, I think it’s a show that you know and love, classic Arthur Miller, with a big, epic story with all of those emotions and dealing with mental illness with just a different twist. It’s got a different twist on it, which, for me, enriches the script and heightens the script and enriches the script even more. I mean, when we did it in London, there were people who said, well, you’ve changed the script. You’ve done something. You’ve changed it, and it’s like, no, not a word has been changed. It is because you’re hearing it and you’re seeing it the way that you’re seeing it, it’s making you think differently. That’s all.
DEADLINE: You’re known in America now in ways that, even a year ago, you may not have been…
CLARKE: Not may not have been – Definitely would not have been.
DEADLINE: How does it feel knowing that you’re coming back to New York next year for what promises to be another very high-profile production? What goes through your mind at this point?
CLARKE: It’s unreal. I mean, it’s absolutely unreal. You know, I have been working very successfully, thank the lord, in London, in Britain, and you know, I never really had a Broadway aspiration in that way. I think because I also do musical theatre and my career’s been lucky enough to be very diverse and eclectic, I never felt any need to make a shift across the pond, like a lot of my fellow actors have had to do, in order to work.
So, because I didn’t have that, I was quite happy where I was, doing my thing, and the opportunity to come to Broadway has only happened once before, and it didn’t happen because the repertory was so fantastic and would only take one person, and I would’ve been the second person, and so I didn’t get to go, and that would’ve been Ghost, but that wasn’t the right time.
And I carried on doing what I was doing, and then to have the opportunity to come with Caroline, a show that had been in my skin, that I would be able to come and play this and not have to say “I’m not really sure why I’m doing it now.” You know, Caroline was in my skin, and so I could feel confident in coming over and giving her my best.
I feel really lucky now that I’m coming over with Death of a Salesman, a classic piece, and it’s a play. It’s not a musical, so it’s different, and people will be seeing me in a different way, and that’s such a wonderful opportunity. I never dreamed that that would happen again in such a short time span, you know? I wasn’t thinking I’d be back so soon, and it’s wonderful. I giggle about it all the time. I’m living my best life. It’s amazing.