“Pocket Change Change Me”: Working Women on the Broadway Stage

Reading about the struggles of working women, particularly working black women, throughout the 20th century brought to mind a critically-acclaimed but obscure musical entitled Caroline, or Change, which ran on Broadway from November 2003-February 2004. Not only does the plot resonate with the class readings and discussions of recent weeks, but the life story of the show’s star illustrates that even today, many single mothers must constantly balance economic stability with family needs.

Caroline, or Change takes place in 1963 Louisiana. The title character, Caroline Thibodeaux, is an African-American maid in the home of a Jewish family, the Gellmans. Noah Gellman, the young son of the family, adores Caroline. Frustrated by Noah’s tendency to leave change in his pockets and determined to teach him a lesson, his stepmother Rose tells Caroline that she can keep any money that she finds while doing laundry. Caroline finds her herself torn: she dislikes taking money from a child, but she is also struggling as a single mother of three children. Following the disappearance of $20 and an angry confrontation between Noah and Caroline, she reflects morosely on how her economic woes have changed her: “My madness rise up in a fury so wild and I let myself go./Spoke my hate to a child./Pennies done that. Pennies done that./Pocket change…” [1] Frustrated by her place in the world, Caroline is part of the “tradition of verbal aggressiveness,” in which black women “used their sharp tongues as weapons against menacing whites.” [2] The meaning of the word “change”—as both currency and a transformation—is emphasized throughout the musical, particularly in regard to how the need for economic stability can strain the lives of the working class, especially minority groups facing discrimination.

While the musical takes place in the 1960s, its real-life parallels make a powerful statement about the continued difficulties of working mothers today. Tonya Pinkins, who played Caroline, experienced success in the early 1990s, winning a Tony Award for her work in Jelly’s Last Jam and enjoying a regular role on All My Children. Her troubles began in 1992, however, when her divorce led to Pinkins losing custody of her two young sons, having her wages garnished for failure to pay $25,000/year in child support, and losing equity in the couple’s property. By 2001, she was “on public assistance, all but homeless and dependent on her friends. Meanwhile, she had had two more children, whose fathers left her, and them, without a penny.”[2] Pinkins’ fortunes and career rebounded following her highly-acclaimed performance in Caroline; however, her story indicates that no matter how successful they seem, the lives of working women—particularly single mothers—are often tenuous.

Tonya Pinkins (R) in and Chandra Wilson in Caroline, or Change

Both historically and in the modern day, working single mothers have struggled to provide financially and emotionally for their families. How have depictions of these women changed from the 1960s to today? What is better? Worse? The same? How much have we changed in the last half-century in our attitudes toward working single mothers—particularly minorities?

[1] Jeanine Tesori and Tony Kushner, Caroline, or Change: A Musical (Theatre Communications Group: New York, 2004), 116.

[2] Jacqueline Jones, Labor of Love, Labor of Sorrow: Black Women, Work, and the Family from Slavery to the Present (Basic Books, New York, 1985), 287.

[3] Jesse Green, “The Trials of Tonya Pinkins,” The New York Times, 2 May 2004. <http://www.nytimes.com/2004/05/02/theater/theater-the-trials-of-tonya-pinkins.html?pagewanted=1&gt;

Photo credit: “Caroline, or Change,” Daryl Roth Productions website. <http://www.darylrothproductions.com/assets/photo/33/caroline_01.jpg&gt;

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