Performance Art

How Black Theatre Troupe Is Tackling the Confederate Statue Controversy

Black Theatre Troupe
Black Theatre Troupe opens its 2017-18 season with Caroline, or Change.
As debate rages over Confederate monuments across America, Black Theatre Troupe is bringing the issue to its stage.

Black Theatre Troupe opens its 2017-18 season with a musical called Caroline, or Change at the Helen K. Mason Performing Arts Center.

Set in 1963 Louisiana during the civil rights era, the musical is a powerful reminder that the issue of Confederate statues has long been contentious, not just for the last week or so.

Several cities have started or renewed efforts to remove or relocate Confederate monuments from public grounds in the aftermath of the recent Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Unite the Right protesters marched near a statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville's Emancipation Park on Saturday, August 12. Many chanted white supremacist and neo-Nazi slogans, and used KKK, Confederate South, and Nazi imagery.

Later that day, 20-year-old James Alex Fields, Jr. of Ohio reportedly drove his car into a crowd of counter-protesters, killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer. Fields has been charged with several related crimes, including second-degree murder.

The protest and President Donald Trump’s response brought renewed attention to Confederate monuments. Essentially, Trump said that Unite the Right participants and those who showed up to counter-protest shared blame for Saturday’s violence.

Here in Arizona, the East Valley NAACP called on Governor Doug Ducey to remove six Confederate memorials. And two Confederate monuments were defaced in Phoenix.

The staff at Phoenix's Black Theatre Troupe had no way of knowing that Caroline, or Change would open amid a renewed national dialogue about whether Confederate statues promote or condone racism.

The troupe decided early last season to perform Caroline, or Change.

click to enlarge Caroline, or Change opens on September 15. - BLACK THEATRE TROUPE
Caroline, or Change opens on September 15.
Black Theatre Troupe
“We saw the developing unrest in the country, and knew the musical would be timely," says David Hemphill, executive director for Black Theatre Troupe.

At the time in 2016, then-candidates Trump and Hillary Clinton were deep into a heated election season, and race was a key campaign issue.

Hemphill hopes that Black Theatre Troupe’s Caroline, or Change will contribute to ongoing discussions about race in America.

Tony Kushner wrote the book and lyrics for the musical, which opened on Broadway in 2004. Kushner also penned Angels in America, a musical that tackled AIDS and homosexuality during the 1980s.

The central characters in Caroline are Noah Gellman, a young Jewish boy, and Caroline Thibodeaux, his family’s African American maid. It’s filled with music reflecting black and Jewish cultures, including gospel, blues, and Klezmer.

About halfway through the first act, Caroline sits talking with her friend Dotty about the mysterious disappearance of the town’s Robert E. Lee statue.

There’s no statue in the show, Hemphill says. But its themes still relate to recent events. “There are songs that mirror what’s going on today,” he says.

Hemphill hopes that Caroline, or Change helps audiences put the Confederate monument issue in context. “We have to remember where we came from,” Hemphill says. “We don’t want to go back there.”

The arts play an important role in helping society address tough topics, he says. “We can make statements through the arts that are more palatable than a soapbox or lecture.”

Jennifer Robinson, who performs the role of Caroline, agrees. “The show is so important right now because the time looks a lot like today,” she says. “I really hope the audience will see the parallels, and leave with a hunger for change.”

Black Theatre Troupe performs Caroline, or Change Friday, September 15, through Sunday, October 1, at the Helen K. Mason Performing Arts Center. Tickets are $38, and are available on the Black Theatre Troupe website.