Panel discussion: Civil rights in Caroline, or Change and The Help

(L-R) Bookclub-in-a-Box writer Rona Arato with cast members Nicholas Rice, Arlene Duncan, and Sterling Jarvis.

This Wednesday, Bookclub-in-a-Box co-hosted the Acting Up Stage Company’s Toronto production of the Tony Award–winning musical Caroline, or Change. For this one night only, we were proud to have Rona Arato, co-author of our discussion guide for Kathryn Stockett’s book The Help, taking part in a post-show discussion, joined by cast members Arlene Duncan (Caroline), Sterling Jarvis (the Dryer/the bus driver), and Nicholas Rice (Grandpa Gellman), and moderated by Associate Producer Elenna Mosoff.

What drew us to this particular show? Caroline, or Change, written by Tony Kushner, tells the story of a black maid working for a Jewish family in Louisiana in the midst of the Civil Rights Movement. The parallels between this show and The Help are many, and so we sought to explore them with the help of the cast.

Caroline takes place in 1963, shortly after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. While the show depicts the devastating effect this event has on its characters, Arato recalled her own first-hand experience: “I remember the day that happened, I was supply teaching at an all-black school in Los Angeles, and I came into the teacher’s room at lunchtime and heard that he had died,” she said. “I didn’t know the other teachers, but the one thing I remember is the refrain repeated over and over: “Who’s going to help us now?,” which is a line that is repeated in the play.” Similarly, Arato pointed out, The Help is set slightly earlier, around another pivotal assassination—this time of civil rights activist Medgar Evers.

The idea of shame is another strong theme in both Caroline and The Help, although as Duncan said, shame is inflicted much more overtly by the white families in The Help, many of whom refuse to show kindness to their maids or even share a bathroom with them.

“In The Help, I think the shame is obvious because the people she’s working for were much more obviously, overtly racist,” said Duncan. “But in Caroline, Mrs. Gellman doesn’t realize that she’s shaming Caroline by saying, ‘pick the change out of our pockets,’ as opposed to just giving her a raise, as she would if somebody else was working for her.”

In both works, it’s difficult to accept that for the older generation of black maids during the 1960s, there were very few options. In The Help, Aibileen and the rest of the maids are able to tell their story through Skeeter’s tell-all book, but Caroline’s only hope seems to be that the next generation will make a difference. “[Caroline] has to provide for those children, so she can’t quit that job,” said Duncan. “She has no education, so that’s why, when her daughter comes in at the end, she is the future.”

Caroline, or Change is playing at the Berkeley Street Theatre, and you can still catch this powerhouse performance, which switches between blues, Motown, and klezmer music with ease, until February 12.

To purchase the Bookclub-in-a-Box guide to The Help, click here. To get your tickets to Caroline, or Change, click here.

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