Jully Black stars in new production of Caroline, or Change
By Carly Maga
Wed., May 22, 2019
“Change come fast and change come slow, but change come.”
That line is sung by the Moon in Caroline, or Change and now Changeis coming back to Toronto courtesy of Musical Stage Company and Obsidian Theatre Company.
A local sold-out production of the musical by Tony Kushner (Angels in America) and Jeanine Tesori (Fun Home) won four Dora Awards in 2012.
Robert McQueen and Reza Jacobs will return as director and music director for this “reimagined and expanded staging” at the historic Winter Garden Theatre Jan. 31 to Feb. 16, 2020, the first production in the Musical Stage Company’s new annual residency. And there are two big names in the cast: award-winning soprano Measha Brueggergosman will play the Moon and Canadian R&B star Jully Black will make her musical theatre debut as the titular Caroline.
“It’s a manifestation, a dream come true,” said Black, a Juno Award-winning artist, activist and entrepreneur nicknamed “Canada’s Queen of R&B.”
She has appeared on the small screen in Trey Anthony’s Da Kink in My Hair as well as other dramatic TV roles, but her musical theatre debut is a long-awaited challenge for the 41-year-old — she had dreams of studying musical theatre as a teenager but was held back by her inability to sight-read sheet music.
After a successful recording career in Canada, her debut in “the Olympics for vocalists” is bringing new-found nerves as she prepares to shed the stage persona cultivated over the past 20 years.
“This is not Jully Black playing Caroline. This is Jullyann Inderia Gordon playing Caroline,” she says.
It’s also about the connection between her own family history, growing up in the Jane and Finch neighbourhood with Jamaican immigrant parents, and the story of Caroline, a Black maid working for a white Jewish family in 1960s Louisiana.
“I think of it as an homage to the women in my family who worked as domestics in Jamaica and, when they came to Canada, raised their kids off that career and who were afraid to think beyond their surroundings,” said Black.
“On the flip side, I realized my mom could have been a Caroline — she was the daughter of a Caroline — and chose to make her life different. Still, she earned $1.65 an hour and turned that into a life for five kids. I’m telling a bit of both sides of the story.”
Black first worked with Musical Stage Company and artistic director Mitchell Marcus last November for the company’s annual UnCoveredconcert, where Marcus developed an “enormous artistic crush.”
“She has a curiosity and a hunger to break outside of the box of what she’s known for in a way that I don’t encounter very often … This is an artist that is ready to take this on and wants to put in the work. She just naturally brings something to the table that goes exactly right for who Caroline is and what the experience of the audience is with the character,” Marcus said.
Musical Stage Company has grown significantly since its 2012 production of Caroline, or Change, when it was known as the Acting Up Stage Company. That production was its first partnership with Obsidian Theatre Company, its first sellout and brought its first Dora Award for Outstanding Musical Production.
“I think there was a bit of an arrival for us … And more broadly, I think we just stopped saying things like, ‘We can’t have that show in Canada,’ and trusted that the work is good enough, people are going to come.,” Marcus said. In the years since, development of new Canadian musical theatre has exploded and revealed new audiences for more intimate musical theatre experiences.
“There’s a real sophisticated theatregoer that’s been cultivated in our city. This piece, in particular, started to create a really monumental bridge proving theatre and musical theatre aren’t necessarily on two different ends of the spectrum, and there can be a common artistry and insight and audience for both,” he said.
Rounding out the cast of the upcoming revision are returning performers like Deborah Hay and Alana Hibbert, and actors new to the show, including Damien Atkins, Oliver Dennis, Linda Kash, Stewart Adam McKensey, Sam Rosenthal, Keisha T. Fraser, Samantha Walkes and Vanessa Sears.
Besides getting another chance to do justice to Caroline, or Change, Marcus said there’s an emotional motivation to staging this story again in 2020.
“This story is about change, about terrible, difficult, difficult change both politically and personally. But it bursts with this beating heart of hope,” he said.
“Even though these characters aren’t perfect and they can’t change the world, and some of them will go to their graves not making the change they’d wanted, they’d done something. To me, that is so moving in a world that right now feels impossible.”
Correction – May 22, 2019: This article was edited from a previous version that misstated Keisha T. Fraser’s surname.