A Dormant Volcano: LaDonna Burns Takes on ‘Caroline, or Change’

If you were among the lucky audience members who saw LaDonna Burns play Stella Deems in APAC’s award-winning production of Follies, you’ll remember her as vibrant and full of life. Her rousing voice and soulful dancing made “Who’s That Woman?” pulsate with the joie de vivre the former showgirls in the musical think they’re lacking in old age. Burns sizzled! Which is why she’s almost unrecognizable as the lead in Caroline, or Change where she plays a maid working for a white family in 1963, for a meager $30 a week. Doing laundry day after day, facing one indignity after the next, Caroline’s soul has been crushed.

Yet watching Burns in this splendid production, one gets a sense of Caroline’s profound inner life. She may not be tap dancing and leading a line of chorus girls towards sparkles and feathers, but she’s slowly moving towards reigniting her inner fire. Burns anchors the piece, sings her heart out, and reminds us why Caroline Thibodeaux is one of the most important characters in musical theatre history. We spoke about her process, living as a black woman in America, and what she would tell Caroline if she had the chance.

Caroline Thibodeaux is one of the great parts for any black woman in theatre, considering how few plays and musicals have women of color as leads. Was this part in your bucket list?

It was most definitely on my bucket list. If not at the top, it was very close. I saw the show on Broadway, during a week when I was off from doing the national tour of Rent. My friend and I got tickets at TKTS and we sat in the front row with our mouths open. Ever since then I’ve been obsessed with it, but not many people do it. I always knew Caroline was in my sight, but the show also has other great parts. I said to myself I was fine doing the Washing Machine or the Radio until I could get Caroline.

Ten years ago I auditioned for the show and I didn’t get it. But little things kept happening to me that said “you’ll be Caroline one day.” I work at a piano bar called Brandy’s, Michael Rafter came to the bar and heard me sing and said “one day you’ll be Caroline, but you’re too young now.” He was one of the first people I emailed when I got the part. When I was cast I started crying, it was a moment of great excitement followed by fear: what did I just get myself into?

Speaking of seeming too young to play Caroline, I can’t help but think of the way in which black people are forced to grow up faster in America. We see little black children being murdered because they were outside playing with their toys and wearing hoodies.

Exactly. Black people are not allowed to be children. Black girl bodies are talked about as if they’re women when they’re just teenagers. I have a niece who’s 12, my nephew is in his 20s and I worried for them. They’re big kids, my nephew is 6’2 but he’s a kid. It’s the same with Caroline, they say black don’t crack, and Caroline is only 39 in the show. But because of what she goes through she’s been usually cast older. I present younger, so I’ve been working on her movements. I’m a New Yorker so I walk fast, but in Louisiana, in 1963 they didn’t walk like that. Caroline is on her feet all day, so there were things like that I had to think about and change.

What have you discovered about Caroline that you didn’t realize just by listening to the cast recording or seeing the show?

When you first look at the show you just think she is so angry. She is angry all the time. I’ve learned it’s not anger. She’s tired, she’s defeated. Sometimes we can just be asserting our rights but we’ll still be called “angry black women.” That changed how I look at Caroline, things are pecking at her slowly, so she’s a dormant volcano. One day she just blows.

Caroline is very loving; when you see her with her children you know she loves her babies. She even has an affection for Noah, although she would never say it. She and Noah are so much alike. She tells him she lost her mom to cancer too, so she understands Noah’s pain. Caroline has lost so much, she has a son in Vietnam, she lost her husband, she’s lost so much she’s kind of given up. Caroline has just one pleasure: listening to the radio at night when no one’s bothering her. That’s it. There are few moments of joy where we get a glimpse of who she was. But when we meet her we see who society has shaped her to be.

Credit: Michael R. Dekker

Caroline, or Change is a great example of why musicals exist. Caroline’s feelings are so intense that she can only put them in song. I sometimes think it’s not even her bodily voice that sings, but her soul. Why do you think her soul comes across through song?

Ooh yes, I love that! It all goes back to slavery, slaves didn’t have much, but they sang. They had field work songs, music was the only thing they had left. They weren’t allowed to have church and through the music they were able to sing about things their masters didn’t understand. Song is rooted in African American history, sometimes all you can do is sing. During segregation the only thing people were allowed to do for white people was sing. They couldn’t share water fountains with white people, but they could entertain them.

Caroline’s conscience comes across through the magical creatures in the show, they’re part of her. When we first started we used to say the Washing Machine and the Radio were like a devil and angel on her shoulder. The show starts with Caroline humming, she’s doing the menial task of laundry, I hate doing laundry, now imagine doing somebody else’s laundry every day? How much laundry do these people have? It’s just a three-person family. Now imagine her doing laundry all day in a basement. One day Caroline realizes she’s underwater like everyone else in Louisiana, and that’s how the change begins, she needs to go above the water.

You were a scene-stealer in APAC’s Follies. Caroline is a character who tells herself she has to hide. As LaDonna, who can’t help but shine, how do you hide that light to play Caroline?

Let’s say it’s constant work [laughs]. People tell me I light up rooms when I walk in, I’m not aware of that. Doing Follies was a shocker to me, it was never on my radar until Dev Bondarin messaged me and asked if I wanted to play Stella Deems. I had to learn how to tap dance in three weeks, but I learned if someone believes in me, I can do it. There were parts of Stella that were definitely me, I imagine she’s me in my 60s. Stella was the older version I like to think of me. But there’s not a lot of me in Caroline, except that we both have a lot going on in our heads. I had to learn how to assert myself in my 20s, and when I hit my 30s I realized I didn’t care what people thought of me.

If as LaDonna you were able to have a conversation with Caroline, what would you tell her?

I would tell Caroline I see you, sis. I know you’re going through a rough time but if it wasn’t for people like you, there wouldn’t be a person like me in this world. During the Civil Rights Movement, you heard about the people at the frontlines, people doing the heavy lifting. But when they marched there were people who cooked the meals that nourished their bodies and spirits. Caroline doesn’t march, but you know what she does, she raises a daughter who knows she can make a difference. Strong daughters don’t come out of thin air, they are made by their parents. I appreciate Caroline, I would tell her: you are not invisible, you are needed, I’ll see you at church.

For tickets and more information on Caroline, or Change visit: http://www.apacny.org/shows-events/current-season-2018-2019/2018-2019-upcoming-shows/caroline-or-change/

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