Sharon D Clarke Is Ready to Bring Change to Broadway in 'Caroline or Change'

CUL PS Sharon D Clarke
Sharon D Clarke arrives at the Olivier Awards at The Royal Opera House in London, England. Nick Harvey/Getty

"It's all about change and how far we've come. How change has to be less talk and more action."

Imagine you're about to make your Broadway debut in a highly anticipated, groundbreaking musical, only to have it all put on hold because of the COVID-19 pandemic. That's exactly what happened to Sharon D Clarke, a veteran of London's West End, who at 56 is finally able to claim her space in musical history with her award-winning turn as Caroline Thibodeaux in the revival of Caroline or Change (runs until January 9). "The show will always be relevant because we're holding up a mirror and saying: Where are we now? How far have we come? We're still telling the same story." Set in 1963 Louisiana, the story revolves around a Black domestic worker for a Jewish family struggling with a changing world. "It's all about how change has to be less talk and more action." The singular uniqueness of the character Caroline isn't lost on Clarke. "To have someone like her, where the story pivots around her, her emotions, her depth of character, her strength, that's unusual." She hopes the impact of her character leads to change. "She's a joy to play because you're honoring these women who never get recognition in entertainment in that way."

How does it feel to be making your Broadway debut at this point in your career?

Everything in its own time. To be making my debut with this show, in particular, is such a blessing. It's a show that I feel is really timely and important, especially after the last year and a half with COVID and the Black Lives Matter movement. But to have something like this on now, it's a story we need to be talking about. It's all about change and how far we've come. How change has to be less talk and more action. So I feel really blessed to be in this position to be bringing this particular show back to New York, a show that I know, is very well-loved. I'm very proud of this show. I've been with it since 2017 in all its different incarnations.

How do you think the show speaks to the current reckoning we're having with racism in the United States?

I think the show's always spoken to the moment that we're living in right now. When we first did the show in 2017, in Chichester, United Kingdom, we opened the week of the Charlottesville riots. And so that whole thing about the confederacy and the statues and all of that was brought very much to a head. But I think the show always remains timely because we haven't moved on. We're still having these conversations. We have had the murder of George Floyd and many others on this side of the pond and in Britain. The fight continues, it never stopped. So the show will always be relevant because we are holding up a mirror and saying to society and the community at large: Where are we now? How far have we come? We're still telling the same story.

How is the role of Caroline unique compared to others on Broadway?

For starters, how many times is a Black woman the leader of a show? It doesn't happen. There are moments like ["Rose's Turn" in Gypsy], moments for white women in entertainment, where you will get to hear their story. I mean, women's stories are not usually heard in the best light anyway. But a strong woman standing up and claiming her space and speaking her truth is not something that we often see in entertainment. And a Black woman in a subservient position such as a maid? You never get to hear her story. You will always hear the story of the people she works for, but you never get to hear her story. And that for me is where Caroline is so unique because you're seeing her from a vantage point that you wouldn't necessarily see. What is it that she's shouldering? Why is it that she has to be strong? What's her life? It's not something that's usually of interest. So just to have someone like her, where the story pivots around her and is about her and makes you get into her head, her emotions, her depth of character, her strength, her fight, her fire? That's unusual. So that's why she's just a joy to play because you are given the chance to run the gamut of emotions, but you're also honoring these women who never get the recognition in entertainment in that way.

In what ways does the musical show this unique relationship between the Black community and Jews during the civil rights movement of the '50s and '60s?

That kind of thing where you have two sets of people that are in step with each other as far as society is concerned, both are on the outskirts, looked on as different, as the other. My mum talked about when she first came to Britain [from Jamaica], it was the Jewish people that were giving Black people homes, giving them jobs, because no one else wanted to. I think it's two sets of people who have worked together and who have found that they have been thrown together because they are often put into the same circumstances. But it hasn't always gone that well, because lots of Jewish people aren't Black. So the experience isn't exactly the same. But they can understand what it is to be the other and to be outside and to be looked on as different. I think there's a lot of similarities there, even if they're not totally their own experiences.

COVID-19 pushed the premiere of the show back. What was it like to put so much work into your Broadway debut, only to have it delayed for over a year?

It sucked. But you know, I think about the shows that closed when everything closed down and knew they weren't going to be coming back. They knew that was their shot and that shot had passed. We were very lucky in that Roundabout had always remained champions of the show and had assured us that we would be coming back, that we would get to put the show on, which actually puts you in a different headspace because you know you're going to get the chance to do it. My mum would say everything in its time. And although we have had this downtime, I think it's it's been good for everyone doing the show, because we know we've got the show to come back to and people have done their work. People have had time to live with the show and really study and think about what they were doing. And I think it means we've all been able to come back even stronger. I know that for myself when we were doing it last year, I was coming in a bit tired because God bless the universe, we had had a good run [on the West End]. But I was tired. So now I'm coming back this time feeling rested and ready.

There's a line in the song "Lot's Wife" that goes, "Don't let my sorrow make evil of me." That one really hit me, because it says so much about who Caroline is. What does that line mean to you?

I think that's really the crux of Caroline. This woman is holding so much back in order to just get on with day-to-day life. Never mind the fact that it's 1963 and she is a Black woman. She's at the bottom of the rung. So what she's dealing with day-to-day makes her angry and she holds all of that in. At some point, the lid has got to blow off. She has to have a good talk with herself. She has to say, is this who you want to be? Do you want to make the situation change the person you are? She has to look at herself and go, is this the person you want to be? Don't let my sorrow—because she knows where it stems from—and don't let it make evil of me—means don't let this rage consume me.