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The Broadway debut of Alice Childress’ Trouble in Mind could not have come at a better time. Now that the dust from the anxious corporate promises (to listen, to learn, to reflect) has settled, we are left with only the question of how to tell the truth of these past few years. Difficult but not unfamiliar questions arise: How does America really see its Black citizens? And is it prepared to change that?
Trouble in Mind, directed by Charles Randolph-Wright, is a reminder that honesty has never been this country’s strength. It took more than 60 years for Childress’ metadrama, a searing chronicle of a veteran Black actress’ experience during rehearsals of a major Broadway production, to reach a mainstream stage. When the play premiered at the Greenwich Mews Theatre in 1955, it was met with enthusiasm, but Broadway producers hesitated to take a real chance on it. They wanted Childress to make substantial revisions, edits that she eventually rejected because they turned her play into something unrecognizable.
Childress, who today is best known for her best-selling novels, was an accomplished playwright in her lifetime. She bristled at the concept of “firsts” (“I just hate to see the ‘first’ Negro, the ‘first’ Black, the ‘first one,” she famously said in a 1972 interview reprinted in Kathy A. Perkins’ introduction to a collection of her plays. “It’s almost like it’s an honor rather than a disgrace”), and yet she achieved many of them. She was the first African American woman playwright to professionally produce in New York City (for her 1952 play Gold Through the Trees); she was the first to win an Obie Award (for Trouble in Mind) and the first to direct an off-Broadway play (Wedding Band: A Love/Hate Story in Black and White, co-directed with Joseph Papp.) She was a fierce advocate for Black thespians and co-founded the American Negro Theater, an influential Harlem-based theater company.
Yet despite her accomplishments and efforts, mainstream success eluded Childress. She was the subject of scholarly interest, but white audiences, it seemed, were not ready for her plays, which featured opinionated working-class Black women and tackled unruly questions about identity, race relations in America, class and interracial love. Perhaps they’ll be ready now. Trouble in Mind is an intellectually curious play, whose considerations of Black representation in art and liberal smugness make it hauntingly timely. Its layers of biting humor and damning observations hit notes about race, art and integrity that are no less important for feeling familiar in 2021 — especially when you consider that Childress penned this work in the ’50s.
The play, which Childress set in the fall of 1957, opens on an appropriately unfussy mise-en-scène by Arnulfo Maldonado. Casually arranged wooden tables and chairs dot a space that’s meant to be the stage of a Broadway theater. Wiletta (played with breathless ease by LaChanze) saunters in wearing a glorious violet coat and holding her purse and a script in her white-gloved hands, ready for the first day of rehearsals. She, who longs to be a star, is playing the mother in an anti-lynching play directed by the white auteur Al Manners (Michael Zegen).
As Wiletta marvels at the empty theater, an old man named Henry (Simon Jones) shuffles in and recognizes her from a show she did 20 years earlier. She doesn’t remember him, but the attention flatters her, so she engages with him for a bit. He eventually leaves to get coffee, and a new arrival engages Wiletta: John Nevins (Brandon Micheal Hall), an enthusiastic and dapper young man, cast as Wiletta’s son in the production.
The two strike up a conversation and soon realize that they’re from the same Virginia town. In fact, John’s mother is Wiletta’s former schoolmate, a detail that makes her suddenly self-conscious of her age. After asking him why he chose to be an actor, Wiletta offers John some unsolicited advice about the business. She warns him not to let the white directors know that he has taken drama classes or been in off-Broadway productions. “They don’t like us to go to school,” she huffs. “They want us to be naturals … you know, just born with the gifts.” She suggests he lie and say he was in the last revival of Porgy and Bess, a fib that hilariously takes on a life of its own later in the show.
Next onstage is Millie Davis (Jessica Frances Duke), Wiletta’s (friendly) foe. Here I must shout out Emilio Sosa’s stellar costuming, particularly the vibrant, stunning outfits for Duke and LaChanze. From the former’s teal skirt and bishop sleeve blouse, cinched at the waist, to the latter’s mustard-yellow dress with violet trim, he does not miss. But the two women’s clothes are hardly the only arresting things about their stage presence. Both their performances enrich Childress’ script, which occasionally has their characters throwing sly digs at each other.
If John represents a new generation of Black thespians eager to make it big, then Millie joins Wiletta on the side of the old(er) guard. She hates performing minor, tropey roles, but takes them nonetheless. Sheldon Forrester (the perfectly cast Chuck Cooper), who walks in next, represents another extreme: He will do anything to keep a job. He scuttles in behind Judy Sears (Danielle Campbell), a doe-eyed young white actress from Connecticut. They’re all eventually joined by the playwright, Manners, and his stagehand Eddie Fenton (Alex Mickiewicz).
Trouble in Mind teems with ideas and robust characters, which is both a blessing and a curse. The show is a thrilling experience of punchy jokes, subtle tonal shifts and sharp commentary that requires you to work to catch every beat. (This, in an age where some art asks nothing of audiences, isn’t a bad thing.) LaChanze dazzles as Wiletta, capturing the character’s yearning, frustration and eventual eruption. Cooper, too, is brilliant and his performance makes Sheldon one of the most interesting characters. Other parts feel less than satisfying — among them Manners, whose occasionally cruel mannerisms feel smoother on the page than onstage.
Despite the occasionally wobbling moments, Trouble in Mind does deliver a powerful message. The latter half of the second act, when Wiletta has decided she’s just about had enough of Manners and his play, hits especially hard after this year of hollow corporate self-flagellation. His refusal to listen to her, his insistence on his good intentions, and his eventual admission of the truth reveal what feels like white America’s relationship to Black people today: Tell me I’m doing the right thing or don’t speak at all. This version of the play restores the ambiguous ending that Childress originally edited out to please white producers. And while it’s not as satisfying, it certainly feels truer to life.
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