Full Synopsis

Full Synopsis

Act One

1963, Louisiana.

It's another hot day for Caroline Thibodeaux, a Black maid for the Gellman family. As she walks down the steps into the scorching basement, Caroline turns on the washing machine and the radio – both of which come to life and sing with Caroline to keep her company ("Scene 1 Washer/Dryer"). As she launders with a hard frown on her face, Caroline sings, "Nothing ever happen underground in Louisiana.... There is only underwater."

On top of the stairs, Noah Gellman, the eight-year-old son, enters. Noah is very interested in Caroline and tries to get close to her, despite (or because of) her no-nonsense attitude. Noah takes pleasure in the fact that Caroline allows him to light her one cigarette of the day: a secret that they can share ("Noah down the Stairs").

Once Noah lights her cigarette, Caroline shoos him away as she puts the laundry into the dryer ("Laundry Finish / The Dryer"). As the dryer moans, Caroline sings about her four kids, divorce and cleaning houses for 22 years. She wishes everyday that she would die. By this time in her life, she thought that she would be doing better. Instead, she makes thirty dollars a week, which the radio sings "Ain't enough." As Caroline continues doing the laundry, she sings again, "Nothing ever happen underground in Louisiana.... There is only underwater."

At the end of a long workday, Caroline is about to go home when Rose Stopnick Gellman, Noah's stepmother, arrives from shopping. Rose tells Caroline that there is extra food that she wants her to take home to her kids ("Caroline, There's Extra Food"). Caroline turns down the offer. Noah's grandparents are outside of the house and sing about Noah's mother, who died of cancer. Noah informs us that his father plays the clarinet, his mother played the bassoon, and that they used to play duets. Rose calls up to Noah, but Noah ignores her, going to Caroline in the basement, instead. Caroline tells Noah that her mother died of cancer, too. She tells him that God created cancer, and that, when people are dying of cancer, they are being eaten by God. Noah asks if God made the dryer, to which Caroline replies, "No, the Devil made the dryer. Everything else, God made."

However, Noah's father, Stuart, says otherwise. Ever since Noah's mother died, his father has been drained of energy. He tells Noah that there is no God and that they don't believe in that stuff, anymore ("There Is No God, Noah"). Noah's grandparents sing of their widowed son. He married Rose, his wife's friend from New York City, in order to make a new start. Noah's grandparents say that, even though Rose can cook and doesn't smoke, she doesn't play the bassoon. Noah states that he hates her with all of his heart ("Rose Stropnick Can Cook").

Rose, with a moment alone, calls her father in New York City and gives him an update on how everything is. She tells him that Noah still hates her, Stuart is still depressed about his first wife and that money is so tight, that they can't afford to give Caroline the raise that she deserves and needs. Meanwhile, Noah has a nasty habit of leaving change in his pants pockets that Caroline has to fish out for him. Rose accidentally releases that she is miserable there and misses her father and New York City ("Long Distance").

Later that night, Caroline waits at the bus stop and runs into a fellow maid named Dotty ("Dotty and Caroline"). Dotty is very giddy because she now has a boyfriend with a car and that her employer lets her off early every night because she's taking night classes at the community college. Caroline tells her that she's too tired to talk, but, pretty soon, the two get into a fight about each other's lifestyles. Caroline disapproves of Dotty's wild behavior, and Dotty thinks that Caroline needs to be less rigid with life. In order to cheer her up, Dotty tells Caroline that a group of teenagers took down a statue honoring a Confederate soldier from in front of the courthouse. Caroline doesn't know anything about it because she doesn't own a television. She isn't happy about the news, saying that it will only cause trouble.

Meanwhile, the moon finally rises ("Moon Change"). As the moon shines, Caroline tells Dotty again that she can't go on parading herself; it's better that she dress simply and do her job with a closed mouth. Dotty replies that the happy, joyful and smart Caroline now seems to be confused ("Moon Trio"). When the bus comes, it arrives with terrible news: the president was shot in Dallas and is dead ("The Bus / The President Is Dead").

Back at the Gellman's house, Rose brings Noah downstairs to tell him that he needs to stop leaving change in his pockets. She tells him that it's insulting to Caroline, who slaves away in the basement for very little money and has to find his neglected money. Noah gets angry and tells Rose that Caroline "is King." He says that Caroline is stronger than Rose and then runs to his room ("Noah and Rose").

Rose goes to Noah's room and tells him that any change he leaves in his laundry Caroline gets to keep. Noah agrees. Noah's grandparents arrive and inform the family that JFK has been shot. They reminisce about all of the good that JFK did for the Jewish community, while Dotty reminisces about everything that JFK was on his way to do for the Black community ("Scene Four – Finale").

Meanwhile, Caroline is sitting on the front porch of her house, listening to the radio and waiting for her teenage daughter, Emmie. Emmie explains that she was at the parking lot with friends, dancing to the radio. Caroline tells her that the president is dead. Emmie tells her that she knows, but that she and her friends kept on dancing. She doesn't have any remorse for JFK since he said that he would help the Black community, but hadn't done a thing. Caroline tells Emmie to be quiet and go to sleep, unhappy that her daughter now has an attitude and a loud mouth. Emmie tells Caroline good night, kisses her on the cheek and goes inside ("Scene Five").

Noah, who is still awake, talks to Caroline from his bedroom, while Caroline is on her front porch. He calls her "President Caroline," pondering what she's going to do since JFK is dead and she's now the only president in the United States. She says that she's going to pass a law that the night lasts longer, her eldest son comes home from Vietnam, her daughter never gets into trouble and that Nat King Cole comes to her house. Caroline asks Noah why he likes someone who is not nice to him. Noah reminds Caroline of the cigarette that she lets him light. In addition, because his mother liked Caroline, he likes her, too. Caroline tells Noah to go to sleep and to "stop botherin' the night." She laments how she has rent, bills and food to pay for and no money to do it with ("Gonna Pass Me a Law").

The next day, Rose tells Caroline about Noah's problem with change in his pockets. Rose suggests that Caroline keep any change she finds in his pocket, both so that she can get the raise that she deserves, and so that Noah can learn a lesson about leaving money around. Rose is obviously nervous around Caroline and tries to make the offer seem fair ("Noah Has a Problem").

Meanwhile, Noah visits Stuart in his practice room. Stuart can't even remember how old Noah is or what grade he is in. Stuart tells Noah that he needs to start showing responsibility and will give him money every week for doing chores. Noah is excited and decides that he's going to spend the money every week on candy and comic books.

The next day, Noah leaves a quarter in his pocket. Testing whether Caroline will take it, she does. He then tries two quarters, and Caroline takes them. When Noah accidentally leaves a dollar bill in his pocket, Caroline decides to give it back to Noah, but he is no longer allowed to light her cigarette. Noah tests her again with three quarters, and Caroline takes them home. Caroline says to herself that thirty dollars a week is not enough ("The Bleach Cup").

Caroline then goes home and gives each of her three children (Emmie, Jackie and Joe) a quarter. As Caroline goes into the house, her sons wonder where she got the money. Emmie tells them to stop being nosey and just enjoy it. She then tells them a story of a kid, Roosevelt Petrucius Coleslaw, who was too nosey about his mother's business and he died. Meanwhile, Noah fantasizes about Caroline's family talking about him all day and wanting to take him into their household. As the act ends, Caroline comes out and sings how Noah is still leaving change in his pocket, and, although she feels bad about it, she needs to be ruthless because the money that she finds will help her pay for what her family needs ("Scene 6 – Finale").

Act Two

Caroline is in the basement, ironing and listening to the radio. The bleach cup is now filled with change. Although she feels bad about taking the money from a kid, she knows that Christmas is coming and that she needs the money to get her children what they want and need. As the radio plays and the washing machine rinses, Caroline thinks back on her marriage. Her husband used to be sweet and thoughtful and then, suddenly, became scary. He once hit her, breaking her nose. When he hit her again, Caroline divorced him and is now making a living as a maid. She doesn't even know where her husband is anymore ("Ironing").

Rose comes down to tell Caroline that Stuart accidentally left a quarter in his shirt pocket, which she knows because Caroline ironed it and left a circle on the shirt. She tells Caroline that she can keep the quarter. Caroline becomes angry and refuses the quarter, telling Rose that she has more laundry to do and wants to be left alone ("Mr. Gellman's Shirt / Ooh Child").

Rose then composes herself and tells Caroline that her father is coming in for Chanukah. She asks Caroline to request that Dotty and Emmie help out with the party ("Rose Recovers"). She then tries to make friendly small talk, but Caroline rejects it and continues to work ("Dryer Gloria"). Rose goes back upstairs, and Caroline continues working. Suddenly, Jackie, Joe and Emmie appear in the laundry room, encouraging Caroline to continue taking the money because they need it ("I Saw Three Ships").

At the Chanukah Christmas party, Emmie and Dotty are helping Caroline in the kitchen, preparing the food and setting the table. Stuart plays his clarinet while Rose, her father and Noah's grandparents dance. Meanwhile, Noah is in the kitchen, educating Emmie about Chanukah and what each food stands for ("The Chanukah Party"). Rose shoos Noah out of the kitchen and tells him to join the party ("Noah, Out! It's Very Rude!"). With Noah gone, Dotty tells Emmie about the courthouse statue being taken down. When Emmie asks if they found out who did it, Dotty says that they didn't. Regardless, Dotty is happy that the statue is down. ("Dotty and Emmie").

Caroline tells Dotty that she doesn't want Emmie hearing stories of rebellion, because she doesn't want Emmie getting into trouble with the law. Meanwhile, Mr. Stopnick, Rose's father, is discussing and belittling Martin Luther King, Jr., and his plan for the Black community to be nonviolent. Emmie overhears and can't help but protest Mr. Stopnick's comments, saying that he simply doesn't understand and that it's meant for the Black community to understand ("Mr. Stopnick and Emmie"). Caroline yells at Emmie to stop and get back in the kitchen. Although Mr. Stopnick doesn't mind the argument and is impressed with Emmie, Caroline is furious, yelling at Emmie in the kitchen – she can't talk that way to white people! Emmie confronts her mother, that all she knows how to do is bow her head and take orders, get paid and then leave. Caroline slaps her and walks out of the house ("Kitchen Fight").

Dotty tells Emmie never to speak to her mother like that again. Emmie is to treat her with respect, since Caroline is doing all that she can to provide for her family. Emmie and Dotty grab their coats and leave to meet up with Caroline at the bus stop. At the party, Mr. Stopnick gives Noah a twenty-dollar bill as a Chanukah present, hoping to teach him a life lesson about money and what must be done to get it ("A Twenty-Dollar Bill and Why"). The speech frightens Noah, and he runs upstairs.

At the bus stop, Emmie says that, when she's older, she's going to get a car and a big house with everything that she'll ever need ("I Hate the Bus"). As she sings, Rose tells Stuart to go check up on Noah and see if he is all right. As Stuart makes his way up the stairs, he freezes. He says that he can't go upstairs because he'll only upset Noah, but he can't go downstairs because he can't give Rose what she wants. He dreams of living in his house with only Noah and no one else, and of them living together until Noah is grown, and they'll be happy ("Moon, Emmie, Stuart Trio").

The next day at school, Noah is in class when he suddenly realizes that he left the twenty-dollar bill in his pants and runs home after school, hoping that Caroline hasn't found it yet ("The Twenty-Dollar Bill / The Clock"). When he gets home, it is too late. Caroline has found the money and says that she is now keeping it. Noah yells at her and says that President Johnson has built a bomb that kills only Black people, and that he hopes it drops on her. Caroline tells Noah that hell is a very hot place, hotter than the basement they are in, and that hell is where Jews go when they die. She then gives Noah the money and leaves ("Caroline and Noah Fight").

("Aftermath") Three days go by. Caroline doesn't come in to work. Rose, worried about Caroline, finds the twenty-dollar bill in the bleach cup and asks Noah if Caroline found the money. Mr. Stopnick, saving Noah, says that the money is his. Another day goes by, and Caroline still doesn't come in to work. Mr. Stopnick tells Rose that, perhaps subconsciously, she wanted Noah to get detached from Caroline so that it would be easier for her to connect with him. Rose, incredibly hurt, tells her father that she wants him to go back home.

That Sunday, Dotty stops by Caroline's house to tell Caroline that Rose called, looking for her. Caroline, ready to go to church with her children, tells her that she hasn't quit but that she can't go back to work. Dotty tells Caroline that it hurts her to see her so sad, but that there's nothing she can do if Caroline isn't willing to change. As Dotty leaves, Caroline thinks to herself about all of the bad that the money she kept did. It caused her hatefulness to come out and it made her into a person that she didn't want to become. She asks God to make her not want anything anymore so that she can never be evil again ("Lot's Wife"). As the radio plays, Caroline's children walk with her to church. Caroline stops Emmie and gives her a fierce hug before they walk off ("How Long Has This Been Going On?")

At the Gellman house, Noah finally lets Rose tuck him into bed, even allowing her to kiss him goodnight. He asks Rose if there is only underwater in Louisiana, if his mother is buried underwater. Rose assures him that his mother is safe aboveground. Rose then goes downstairs and sits with Stuart as he plays the clarinet. Caroline has started coming back to work again, and Noah talks to her from his bedroom that night as she sits on her porch, listening to the radio. Noah asks Caroline what it's like underwater, to which she says that it's like a song. She assures him that they'll be friends again. He asks if she misses him lighting her cigarette, which Caroline says, "You bet I do, Noah" ("Why Does Our House Have Basement?").

As Caroline goes inside, Emmie walks out in her nightgown. She reveals that she was part of the gang that took down the statue of the Confederate soldier. She recounts how she tore down the evil of the statue, saying proudly that she was the daughter of a maid and that she knew change was coming, whether it was fast or slow. Jackie and Joe come out and tell Emmie to be quiet and let their mother sleep, since she has worked all day. Emmie quietly, but proudly, sings once more that she is the daughter of a maid and that, although she may be hidden underground, her children – her future – will ensure that what she does is for a greater cause.