Sharon D Clarke had been preparing to make her long-awaited Broadway debut. But then, on March 12, 2020, the day before she was scheduled to perform in the first preview of Caroline, or Change, every Broadway theatre shut down due to the rise of COVID-19 cases in New York City.
“Initially the company said they thought the closure would last three to four weeks,” Clarke said in our Zoom interview. Now, more than a year and a half later, the Olivier Award–winning actress is ready to leave her home in London and make her way back to Times Square to officially open the show she loves so dearly.
“I am so, so ready,” she said excitedly.
Clarke has been spending lockdown cooking with her wife, Kiln Theatre Associate Director Susie McKenna. “I discovered that Susie makes a mean lemon drizzle cake, which is something that, until last year, I never knew,” she said. “We made a seafood red curry the other day, and we’ve done curry chicken and goat. We enjoy cooking and spending time together because we’re both in the industry and we get so busy. We’ve been together 21 years, and last Christmas was the first Christmas that we had more than just Christmas Day together. Among the lows, the high of this lockdown was building my relationship and spending quality time with my wife.” Now that theater is reopening both on London’s West End and on Broadway, Clarke is putting a pause on the cooking, and preparing to tour New York City’s restaurants in between shows.
As Caroline, or Change prepares to welcome audiences back to Roundabout Theatre Company’s Studio 54 on October 8, we caught up with Clarke on what this show means to her personally, and what she plans to do when she arrives back in NYC.
Caroline, or Change is among one of the top Broadway shows New York theater fans are looking forward to when Broadway returns. How does that make you feel?
I know Caroline, or Change is a well-loved American musical. I think that after the last year and a half that we’ve had with the Black Lives Matter movement and the murder of George Floyd, seeing this story again will make people think, “How far have we come and what can we do for better change?” The Black Lives Matter movement must not be just a moment. We have to keep shining that light, and hopefully it will make people consider how we move forward beyond the chatter and move into action.
How do you explain to the theatergoer with no context of Caroline, or Change that this musical is more than just another story about a Black maid?
Caroline, or Change seems like a story about very little, but within that it’s actually quite an epic story. A Black maid is never usually the lead. We’re telling the audience that we’re coming from a different place, and you’re going to see something from a completely different perspective because this is someone who you’ve probably never noticed before. You’re going to hear her full story and we’re going to put you in the midst of it.
Caroline has a deep connection with her appliances. Tell us about those parts in the show and how you embody those moments.
Caroline’s appliances are varying qualities of herself. They are her conscience, and how she lets you as an audience know how she’s feeling as they push her to reveal her emotions. Without the appliances, Caroline’s world is actually very insular and lonely. They allow her to tell her story because they are the things that are with her every day. Her radio is her sanctuary and her connection to the outside world. The washing machine is her friend, and it makes her life easier and is very supportive. The dryer is Caroline’s nemesis. Once the dryer goes on in that basement, her life becomes hell. It’s hot, there are no windows, and it makes her think in a different way. Her thoughts become darker and more oppressive. They all bring out different elements of her and allow her to express herself, and offer the audience a chance to see a deeper level of her.
What are the moments of the show that bring you joy every time you perform?
It has to be “Roosevelt Petrucius Coleslaw.” It’s such a joyous moment because you just have these kids dreaming about the things that they would buy with the money they have, and they’re dancing and having fun. They’re just being kids, loving life, and keeping their innocence. It’s such a wonderful number. And it always just makes me smile to see the performers themselves enjoy doing that moment. That moment and song bring a lightness to the show. My other favorite moment is “Salty Teardrops.” Just the simplicity of that song. The lyrics, the beautiful arrangements, and the vocal harmonies of that song make it an absolute pleasure to listen to every night.
You’ve been committed to this show since 2016 on the West End. What does this musical mean to you personally?
This story honors all women. A lot of what I do with Caroline is drawn on from my mum and her strength. My mum lived Caroline’s life. She had those strong qualities, and had to have pride and dignity and sometimes bit back her words. I do this show to honor her and say to those women like her: Thank you.
Other than finally getting your Broadway debut, what are you most looking forward to when you arrive back in New York City?
I was just getting into my New York groove before this happened. We were still in rehearsals, so in our downtime I was exploring the city. My world became what’s between Times Square, where we were rehearsing, and Ninth Avenue, where the food was. I plan on working my way down that street and trying everything. I also look forward to spending some time with the friends I have in New York. The biggest thing for me is, it is my Broadway debut. That is everything. I want to get back into that groove, put on Odyssey’s “Native New Yorker” in my AirPods, wander around the city and yell, “Yes, I’m here!”
This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
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