Better late than never.
Or rather: much, much better late than never.
As a pre-show ad at the American Airlines Theater makes clear, it took pioneering black playwright Alice Childress about 66 years. the comedy-drama “Trouble in Mind” to get to Broadway. Originally produced on Off Broadway in 1955, the play was due to move to upscale neighborhoods – at least until producers tried to pressure Childress to rewrite the play in order to tone down the high points it was making. fact about the racism that prevails both in American culture and in the theater.
The child refused; the transfer was canceled. Save another little-known footnote in the long struggle of black playwrights – and perhaps black playwrights in particular – to leave their mark on American theater or have their contributions recognized. The story is hardly surprising, except that now that audiences have the chance to see the play, its combination of biting humor and powerfully moving dramatic moments would seem like a powerful formula for popular success in any era. .
“Trouble in Mind” takes place entirely behind the scenes of a Broadway theater. The central character is Wiletta Mayer, an experienced actress (like Childress), played by the wonderful LaChanze, who enters the premiere and spends a few moments basking in the pleasure of being on stage again. It positively exudes a joy that is instantly transmitted to the public; you feel as happy to be there as her.
Wiletta is soon joined by most of the other actors in the play. John Nevins (Brandon Michael Hall) is an idealistic young man who is thrilled to be in his first show, and that Wiletta soon begins to learn the dizzying contradictions of the way black actors are supposed to behave. When he eagerly tells her that he’s studied acting, she says, “Don’t let the man know thatâ¦ they want us to be natural.” Then she adds, “Of course they want you to be that experienced” and suggests he say he was in the last cover of “Porgy and Bess”. When he hesitates to say he might be too young, she replies, “They won’t know the difference.”
Millie Davis (a very funny Jessica Frances Dukes, making a smashing Broadway debut) walks in wrapped in a fur coat and dressed to the hilt – as she bitterly acknowledges that she’ll never be in character on stage. She and Wiletta have shared the stage in the past and have a friendly, sometimes fiery and rivalry relationship. “I wanted to read for you,” Millie said lightly to Wiletta, “but Mr. Manners said I was too young.”
Sheldon Forrester, played by the esteemed Chuck Cooper, is the oldest member of the cast, and perhaps the most experienced – so experienced that he was recently mistakenly pronounced dead. He walks in alongside Judy Sears (Danielle Campbell), one of only two white members of the cast, an ingenuous guy who shares John’s bright-eyed enthusiasm for the theater. Later, second white actor Bill O’Wray (Don Stephenson), who turns out not to be so subtly racist – refusing to eat with the rest of the cast – is seen in a private rehearsal with the play’s director, Al Manners. (Michael Zegen), who is, unsurprisingly, also white.
Childress points out that in the theater of the day, all power resided firmly in the hands of white directors, producers, playwrights and even actors. Black actors may appear on stage, but as Millie and Wiletta note, their roles are strictly relegated to minor roles: servants, stereotypes, or generic symbols of suffering.
“Trouble in Mind”, directed by Charles Randolph-Wright, is gradually heading towards a latent confrontation between Wiletta and Al. Wiletta has the temerity to suggest that she might know a little more about the character she plays, a woman whose son is in danger of being lynched, whom the white playwright who created it, and disputes a crucial point. Their conflict causes Al to explode almost making it look like it could have been written today, as he delves into a tantrum, claiming that just because he’s white doesn’t mean his life is a picnic. This gets a rocky reaction from the Black cast members and elicits a moan or two from the audience.
As enjoyable as it is, with the comedy especially sharpened to razor-sharp crispness, Randolph-Wright’s production has some fragile aspects. Playing Al, a character written as callous and condescending even though he repeatedly insists he’s a champion of equality in the theater, Zegen pushes a little too hard on both aspects, threatening to turn Al into too blatant an example of internalized racism. Likewise, Campbell’s performance as naive young Judy – whose suggestion that the cast all come to visit her family in Bridgeport is greeted with sheer mockery by the cast – can’t always strike the right balance between the youthful innocence and the obscure overplayed.
But in any case, the play’s most powerful and memorable moments belong to Cooper and LaChanze. Cooper’s Sheldon virtually stops the show when he reveals he has witnessed a lynching before. Cooper’s calm, focused, and gradually intensified description of his experience – Sheldon was a child at the time, but the wound is still burning – reveals Childress’s handwriting at its most heartbreaking, and Cooper at its most supremely touching.
And yet, it is above all the captivating LaChanze who carries the show by creating in Wiletta the fully realized and deeply felt portrait of a woman with warm but ironic humor, curious intelligence and, in the end, hard-won righteousness. Wiletta grows increasingly uncomfortable with her role and Al’s contemptuous rejection of her objections, until her initially gentle suggestions solidify into strong, formidable resistance.
By the end of the play, she became a figure who realized that her dignity, and tell the truth that she and her ancestors lived, can be more important than any role. Her climactic monologue sends a breathless silence throughout the theater, as Wiletta, once again alone in the center of the stage, faces a future in which her career may be uncertain but her integrity is assured.
“Trouble in Mind” opened at the American Airlines Theater on November 18, 2021.
Review photo: Joan Marcus
Creative: Written by Alice Childress; Original music by Nona Hendryx; Directed by Charles Randolph-Wright; Stage design by Arnulfo Maldonado; Costume design by Emilio Sosa; Lighting design by Kathy A. Perkins; Sound design by Dan Moses Schreier.
Producers: Roundabout Theater Company.
Cast: LaChanze, Danielle Campbell, Chuck Cooper, Jessica Frances Dukes, Brandon Micheal Hall, Simon Jones, Alex Mickiewicz, Don Stephenson and Michael Zegen.