She is lit from within.
From the moment she appears on stage, from the second she opens her mouth to sing, there is something about Nova Y. Payton that has the power to illuminate one of contemporary musical theater’s most real, most raw and most frustrating of heroines.
“She’s doing what she has to do in order to survive,” observed Payton, who plays the eponymous lead role in “Caroline, or Change” at Round House Theatre in Bethesda. “As a parent, you make sacrifices to put food on the table for your children, to clothe them, to put a roof over their head. But everything Caroline tried to do, she felt like she was drowning. No matter what, something held her down.”
To be fair, pretty much everything held down Caroline Thibodeaux, the single mom working as a maid in 1963 Louisiana whose rich inner life and grim outward demeanor have been captured in the amber of Tony-and-Pulitzer-winning playwright Tony Kushner’s memory and imagination. Kushner, whose family moved from Manhattan to the South when he was a baby, mined growing up Jewish in Lake Charles, La., for the racial unrest, religious tensions and family dysfunction at the heart of the story of the Gellman family and their African-American maid.
But with its soaring score and deeply felt characterizations, “Caroline, or Change” manages to capture the unwritten story of another family as well. Nurtured, loved and protected by their exhausted, overlooked and heartsick mother, the story’s arc also follows that of the Thibodeaux children, who rise and move forward on the unfailing strength of their mother’s sacrifices. It’s a story of lightness and darkness, of one family bogged down in the sorrow of a mother’s passing and another flying tentatively toward the future on the wings of a mother’s love.
And Caroline? It’s the kind of role Payton wanted to get right. “I was raised by strong women; I’ve only seen women working,” she explained, noting that her grandmother was a nutritionist and her mother, Thomascena Nelson, is one of the D.C. area’s top gospel jazz singers. “But my grandmother was born in the South—she was Caroline. She cooked for a family and hardly ever saw my mom and my uncle. But she could see there was something more for her, more than cooking and cleaning for other people, and she strived for that. She pushed for that. And she moved them all up North.”
Which is how Payton came to be a 3-year-old taking dance classes in D.C. “I wanted to be a dancer,” she said. “I took all forms of training: ballet, jazz, tap, modern, pointe, and I didn’t really start singing until I was 16 years old. That’s when I started singing outside of church, outside of school.”
Payton said that ever since she can remember, her mother has been traveling the world, singing—and she remembers thinking “my mom was just so great I could never be as great as she was.” Thus, “I really took to dancing, it was my way of letting my voice be heard. My mom noticed early on that I had rhythm. She let me try to figure out what I’m great at and do that.”
Yet even as Payton trained seriously as a dancer, the world of music beckoned. She sang at St. Augustine’s Catholic Church at 14th and V streets. She sang at school (again, St. Augustine’s) and around the house. She sang in the musical theater dance recitals, and she took to heart the advice of a dance teacher who said “You can do everything.”
“I said OK,” she remembered. “And it just clicked for me. I was about 16 years old.”
Next, she found a music teacher in New York City, away from the formidable shadow of her mother’s success. “She helped me figure out how to navigate my voice,” said Payton. “She didn’t want me to sound like anyone else but me. That’s the best thing that came out of it.”
Rich inner life
The fact that Payton sounds unlike anyone else is evident from the beginning of “Caroline, or Change.” In her basement sanctuary, Caroline interacts with memory and imagination to create a temporary refuge from life’s cruel realities, kept company by the singing Washing Machine (Theresa Cunningham), the Dryer (V. Savoy McIlwain) and the Radio (Kara-Tameika Watkins, Felicia Curry and Olivia Russell)—all in astonishing voice, and the waxing, waning Moon (Delores King Williams). Upstairs, the concerns of the Gellmans play out—a heartbroken husband, a motherless child, a faltering marriage and some middle-class hand-wringing over money matters—while Caroline’s issues remain below the surface, never really given more than a passing interest by her employers. No one wants to know about the lost love and broken dreams behind the maid’s unsmiling façade, not even young Noah, who reaches out (and lashes out) with a combination of love, sorrow and misplaced privilege.
“Caroline didn’t know how to fight back,” said Payton. “I believe she was raised not to. Sometimes there are people who don’t know how to do anything but be in the shadow.”
Unlike Motormouth Mabel, the singing civil rights activist Payton portrayed to great acclaim in “Hairspray” at Signature Theatre in 2012, “Caroline didn’t have her voice. It’s very interesting that I was able to play both of these roles,” she observed. “The two are so totally different. Caroline wants to fight—she loves her children and wants them to have more—but she doesn’t know how to do it.”
Ironically, given this play’s title, Payton said she can only see change in the legacy Caroline creates for her daughter. “She even says it in ‘Gonna Pass Me a Law:’ She wants her ‘heathen daughter’ to learn to ‘mind nobody ’cept herself.’
“Caroline admires her daughter for being an activist, that she can see change coming.”
That is particularly poignant considering Payton’s relationship with the exceptional young actors in the show. “One of those young actors happens to be my 7-year-old,” she said proudly. “Micah Tate—this is his first show. Then Elijah Mayo, who plays my older son: I was able to work with him (at Signature) in ‘Jelly’s Last Jam.’ And the girl who plays Emmie (Korinn Walfall) was one of my students.”
Payton says it’s a thrill “seeing them all come into their own,” noting that Griffin McCahill, who plays Noah, “is such an amazing storyteller, he’s so smart—all of them are smart! I find myself learning from them.”
As an artist-educator, Payton not only enjoys working with the next generation; she remembers “being that kid. I remember the adults I worked with, their work ethic and everything they said to me.
“I wanted to soak it all up like a sponge so I could be great at it.”
And she is, even if she downplays her own work to give credit to director Matthew Gardiner, conductor Jon Kalbfleisch, scenic designer Jason Sherwood and everyone in the cast and crew.
“The score is so beautifully written, you don’t have to do much as an actor,” Payton declared modestly. “It’s all given to you—and everybody’s part in the show is important.
Caroline is always onstage with someone, singing with someone. This is written as an opera: it goes on, and you go along for the ride. “As soon as the lights go down and the first note is sung,” said Payton, “you are there in the world of Caroline.”
“Caroline, Or Change” runs through Feb. 26 at Round House Theatre, 4545 East-West Highway, Bethesda. Performances start at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Tickets range from $10 to $80. Call 240-644-1100 or visit www.RoundHouseTheatre.org.