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The More Things 'Change...' :: Yewande Odetoyinbo on Tony Kushner and Jeanine Tesoro's Musical Team-Up

by Kilian Melloy
Thursday Apr 11, 2019
Yewande Odetoyinbo
Yewande Odetoyinbo  

Yewande Odetoyinbo has appeared in a number of musicals around Boston, from "In the Heights" and "Ragtime" at the Wheelock Family Theater to the collaboration on "Breath and Imagination" undertaken earlier this season by the Front Porch Arts Collective and the Lyric Stage Company, to productions of "Showboat" by the Reagle Players and by Fiddlehead Theatre.

Now Odetoyinbo takes on the title character of the Tony Kushner and Jeanine Tesori musical "Caroline, or Change." Kushner, of course, is the playwright behind the blockbuster "Angels in America," as well as "A Bright Room Called Day" and "The Intelligent Homosexual's Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures." Tesori is the composer behind musical gems like "Shrek the Musical," as well as the Obie-winning "Fun Home," the musical based on the autobiographical graphic novel by lesbian cartoonist Alison Bechdel.

"Caroline, or Change" is set in the early 1960s - a time of great promise, and also great upheaval, in a deeply and unthinkingly racist America. As the play commences, news breaks President John F. Kennedy has been assassinated. Caroline is the maid for a Jewish American family whose mother has recently passed away; as such, she becomes a maternal figure for the family's son, Noah, who takes to deliberately leaving loose change in his trouser pockets, knowing that Caroline will confiscate any coins that end up in the laundry. Meantime, Caroline's daughter, Emmie - an adherent of Dr. Martin Luther King - is an activist working for racial equality. Caroline herself may be willing to collect whatever change happens to come her way, but can she be an agent for change in her own right?

EDGE had the pleasure of chatting with Yewande Odetoyinbo about the play, its contemporary resonances, and her other upcoming projects.


EDGE: Congratulations on winning the Independent Reviewers of New England award for Best Supporting Actress on a Musical, Small Theater, for your work in "Breath and Imagination."

Yewande Odetoyinbo: Thank you. I was totally shocked. I really didn't think I was going to win. There were so many talented women in the category.

EDGE: So, let's talk about "Caroline, or Change," which you're starring in as the title character. How thrilling is it to be in collaboration by none other than Tony Kushner and Jeanine Tesori?

Yewande Odetoyinbo: Oh my god, Tony Kushner and Jeanine Tesori are — they're the ultimate team! Like, who decided that was supposed to happen?

EDGE: If you discount the upcoming Steven Spielberg remake of "West Side Story," I think that "Caroline, or Change" marks Kushner's first and only musical. He wrote both book and lyrics - how does he do as a lyricist?

Yewande Odetoyinbo: I think that it's amazing, and I feel like you were saying about the teamwork of Tony Kushner and Jeanine Tesori, they are like the same person. It's the perfect collaboration.

EDGE: So — hand in glove?

Yewande Odetoyinbo: Yeah.

EDGE: Would you already have a favorite or two from the play's songs?

Yewande Odetoyinbo: Oh, yes. The songs that are my favorites are the songs that I don't even sing! It's the craziest thing.

[Laughter]

Yewande Odetoyinbo: There's a song right after I do my huge eleven o'clock number — which is a great song also, it's called "Lot's Wife" — there's a song called "Salty Teardrops" that the Radio Trio [played by Aliyah Harris, Maria Hendricks, and Lovely Hoffman] sings, and it is my favorite song in the whole musical.

EDGE: Your character, Caroline, is an African American maid to a Jewish American family in the early 1960s. It's a fascinating period for minorities, and a fascinating way to bring different minority identities together on stage and in a domestic setting. How did you research and prepare for the role?

Yewande Odetoyinbo: Actually, I kind of based it on my grandmother. I was telling Allison on the first day or rehearsal my grandmother was a maid in the 1960s and went to work every day working in white people's homes and taking care of other people's kids, then coming home to her own five children and making ends meet and making it work. I remember my mom telling me that they kind of knew they were poor, but they never felt like it. They were never wanting for food, clothes, shelter. A lot of this research was, "Oh, this is pretty much my grandmother's story."

EDGE: That's a great way to make a connection with the show and its period. How does the play address today's issues and tensions?

Yewande Odetoyinbo: It's so interesting how plays that were written about the past — about [times] even further in the past — are still relevant today. It just blows my mind, and I feel like as a nation we feel like we should be so much further along than we are, but in reality... like, I just did "Ragtime," and people were asking about "Ragtime," "Hey, did you change anything to make it fit today?" And, no. No, these are the same things that are still happening.

EDGE: Which is a little bit depressing... I mean, in terms of theater, it offers dramatic possibilities, but in real life it's disheartening.

Yewande Odetoyinbo: Absolutely.

EDGE: When people come out of this, do you feel like they are going to be saying, "I really learned something from that show," or "Here's what we have forgotten and really need to get back to?"

Yewande Odetoyinbo: People will definitely come out with something, but I think what that is depends on the person. You have this lady, Caroline, who wants change and wants change to happen, but she's not gonna be the one to initiate it. It's kind of like looking at yourself and asking if you are the person who is waiting for change to happen, or are you going to be the change — like Carline's daughter, Emmie, who is played in the show by Kira Troilo. She's the radical, she's the follower of Dr. King, she's the one going on marches and tearing down statutes. Caroline is concerned for her daughter — she obviously doesn't want her to get hurt or anything, but I think that Caroline kind of admires her daughter and what she's doing.

EDGE: You're working with a wonderful cast! Davron Monroe is in this cast, and Lyndsay Ally Cox, Kira Troilo, Robert Orzalli... What are rehearsals like? You all must be having a ball.

Yewande Odetoyinbo: Oh my god. It's just so great when you're among people who are so talented. It's so funny, Davron and I have actually — this is our third play in a row together. We did "The Wiz" [last season at the Lyric Stage], we did "Breath and Imagination," we did "Ragtime" [at the Wheelock Family Theatre], and now we're doing "Caroline." And right after "Caroline", we're doing "The View UpStairs" [with SpeakEasy Stage Company]. Me and Davron have been stuck at the hip for a whole year now!

The cast is just amazing. We just yesterday did a scene with Caroline and Dotty, and Lyndsay Allyn Cox plays Dotty, and just the way that we connected and vibed off each other was magic.

EDGE: You just mentioned "Breath and Imagination," which was a co-production between the Lyric Stage Company of Boston and the exciting new theater company Front Porch Arts Collective. It must also be exciting to be part of Front Porch as it really gets going.

Yewande Odetoyinbo: Oh, my god, Front Porch Arts Collective! I love them so much! It's great, it gives so many more opportunities for performers of color to tell their stories — to tell the stories of their people. Front Porch, I adore them. I'm so glad it happened.

EDGE: Your director for "Caroline, or Change" is Allison Olivia Choat. How do you describe her directorial process?

Yewande Odetoyinbo: She's just so knowledgeable about everything. You can tell that she has done her research. I remember her saying that she has wanted to do this show for about ten years, and it really shows. She has thought about every single detail, and she has something valuable to say about everything in the show.

EDGE: Allison is also a choreographer. What's she got in store for us there?

Yewande Odetoyinbo: Actually, I am choreographing the show, strangely enough.

EDGE Are you? What fun! How did that come about?

Yewande Odetoyinbo: One day during rehearsal the Radio Trio was doing some things and I was, like, "Oh, how about if they do this move and that move?" Allison was kind of like, "Do you want to choreograph this?" And, kind of jokingly, I said yes. She said, "You know what, let me see. I had somebody else that I had in mind; if they can't do it..." And I was, "Okay!" Then, about two days later, she said, "So, are you really interested in choreographing, because the other person can't do it." I was, "I mean, I guess so!" Because I had already started making up dances for the Radio Trio.

EDGE: Are you looking at the dance styles of the time for inspiration, or are you just kind of going with what suits the mood and the moment?

Yewande Odetoyinbo: Absolutely! I am obsessed with 1960s girl groups. Which is why I was having fun with all this and they were, like, "Wait a minute, you actually know about this stuff!" I was born and raised in Detroit, Michigan, home of Motown, so I grew up on the Supremes, the Marvelettes, Martha & the Vandellas — all those '60s girl groups, because that's what my mom would listen to, and in turn, I fell in love with them.

The Marvelettes are my favorite '60s girl group because they were the ones that danced — like, really danced! The Supremes just stood there and they did their little hip shake, but the Marvelettes, if you ever go and watch any of their videos — there's this great one of the Marvelettes at the Apollo, and the girls are dancing!



EDGE: You have quite a resume of musical theater in Boston and elsewhere, including "Showboat," "In the Heights," and "Seussical," as well as some other show's you've mentioned, like "Ragtime," "The Wiz," and "Breath and Imagination." What, for you, is the draw to musicals as a theatrical form?

Yewande Odetoyinbo: You can do everything! You act, you sing, you dance — it's like being the master of all three of these amazing disciplines. Acting is cool, plays are nice — I enjoy plays. And also, I learn music easier than I learn lines!

[Laughter]

Yewande Odetoyinbo: It's so weird... it's like, I need a script in advance, but I can learn a song like that, which is crazy. I think it's the rhythm, the musicality of it. But I do love combining all these aspects of theater to become one.

EDGE: What else have you got coming up?

Yewande Odetoyinbo: Like I said, right after "Caroline"... actually, while we're still performing "Caroline," I start rehearsals for "The View UpStairs" at SpeakEasy. I'm looking forward to that, and also — simultaneous with "Caroline" — I'm also co-choreographing "Once On This Island Jr." at Wheelock.

EDGE: It's got to be a thrill to be in Boston's first production of "The View UpStairs," the 2017 musical about the 1973 arson attack on a New Orleans gay bar.

Yewande Odetoyinbo: I told Paul Daigneault the other day I'm low-key obsessed with this show ever since I first heard about it. Frenchie Davis was in the original Off-Broadway cast. [Davis played Henri, the lesbian owner of the UpStairs Lounge. — Ed.] She went to Howard University, and I went to Howard University as an undergrad — we weren't there at the same time, but she's somebody I've always admired, so to step in a role that she played was like, "Oh my god! I get to play a role that Frenchie Davis played!" And to know that it is a true story... I remember reading the play and at the end being in tears. You know the backstory about the UpStairs Lounge, right?

EDGE: I saw a documentary about it.

Yewande Odetoyinbo: I saw the documentary, there's a book out that I started looking at... there's a TV show, "Ghost Hunters," where they went to the building that's still there — I guess nobody occupies it on the second or third level. The Ghost Hunters went in there looking for spirits.

I have been reading literally everything that I could possibly find about this because it's still an unsolved mystery. They don't know if it was a hate crime or somebody inside the bar started the fire, or what. And all these people who knew what kind of bar this was, they weren't helping [the victims] — they were, "Oh, this is a gay bar," and whatever. People were literally on fire, and nobody was helping them. That is just heartbreaking. I'd like to think that we've come further as a society as far as LGBTQ rights, but even on that front... I mean, we've made some progress, but... I mean... you think about an arson that happened back in the '70s and the Orlando shooting that happened a couple of years ago.


"Caroline, or Change" plays April 20 - May 11 at the Boston Center for the Arts. For tickets and more information, please go to http://www.moonboxproductions.org/#new-page-3

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor. He also reviews theater for WBUR. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.


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