If Alice Childress’ 1955 Off Broadway hit, Trouble in Mind, had transferred to Broadway in 1957 as it was scheduled to do, it would have been the first play by a Black playwright to reach the main stem. As if happened, the white producers wanted continual softening of the play’s ending and after two years of rewrites Childress threw in the towel. Ironically, this is exactly the theme of her backstage play. As things worked out, the softer Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry, less critical of its white audience, became the first play by a Black woman writer to reach Broadway in 1959 and the rest is history. Now history is being remade with the Roundabout Theatre Company’s production of Trouble in Mind at Broadway’s American Airlines Theatre 64 years later with a fine cast led by Tony Award winners LaChanze and Chuck Cooper.
Named for the famous blues song, Trouble in Mind takes place at a rehearsal for a new Broadway play, circa 1957, a milieu Childress knew well after having appeared in the hit play Anna Lucasta from 1944 – 1946. Like that play and others like DuBose Heyward’s Porgy and the musical Memphis, Chaos in Belleville that they are rehearsing is a black play by a white author who is trafficking in accepted clichés. One of the leads, Wiletta Mayer (played by LaChanze), is a musical comedy performer who has worked with clueless Hollywood director Al Manners (Michael Zegen) before. In the business 25 years, she has survived by playing the game but has never achieved stardom. Meeting naive young actor John Nevins (Brandon Micheal Hall), she reminds him that they are not in theater but show business: “Colored folks ain’t in no theater.” She also confides in him that she thinks the play “stinks” but that won’t stop it from running a long time.
The characters involved with Chaos in Belleville are split right down the middle, four blacks and four whites, and are representative types. We meet acerbic Millie Davis (Jessica Frances Dukes) who gives her directors what they want but resents having always played maids named Gardenia, Magnolia and Chrysanthemum and is about to create Petunia, while Wiletta has played mammies named Crystal, Pearl and Opal, and now Ruby. Veteran black actor Sheldon Forrester (their Actors’ Equity deputy played by Chuck Cooper) is an Uncle Tom who “yeses” the white men at all times and never speaks his real mind. Newbie John Nevins (Hall) who has had classes in acting expects to go straight to the top, seemingly not knowing about paying your dues and the roles to which black actors are confined.
Making her stage debut, white actress Judy Sears (Danielle Campbell), has been to Yale Drama School but will have to return home to Bridgeport, Connecticut, if the play fails. Co-star Bill O’Wray (Don Stephenson) isn’t much good, but gets a lot of work, and worries about his ulcer. Stage manager Eddie Fenton (Alex Mickiewicz) is brow-beaten by smug director Manners (after years in Hollywood and staging his first Broadway play) who doesn’t believe in a read-through of the script or discussing interpretations of the characters. Doorman Henry (veteran actor Simon Jones) is 78 years old and going deaf.
The first act depicting day one of the rehearsal period is played for laughs in director Charles Randolph-Wright’s production and is quite funny. The drama begins in Act II, the fourth day of rehearsal, when the cast is getting into the meat of the play. Director Al keeps demanding “truth” in acting by which he means playing the well-known stereotypes. When Wiletta finally finds her integrity and insists that the play’s third act is a lie, the stage is set for a confrontation between her and her director. The climax to this scene is ultimately devastating.
While the play is most likely meant as a satire of Childress’ experiences in Anna Lucasta, it is not played here that way. In what was probably her first full-length play (“Florence” and “Gold in the Trees” which preceded it are both one acts), the tone of the two acts are very different, but then, of course, she did not get to see the Broadway production materialize. The play is vastly entertaining with its backstage gossip and incisive ironies: while the white author of Chaos in Belleville writes of a lynching he has probably never seen, cast member Sheldon is able to describe one he saw at age nine, etc. The cast is superb but limited by the representative roles. The plays is amazing relevant considering blacks actors today are still complaining about their secondary roles in film or theater but one assumes that if Childress were writing the play today the roles and situations would go a bit further and the satire would be more scathing. The play is true to life for 1957 but somewhat dated today in 2021.
LaChanze (who has been nominated for Tony Awards for the musicals Once on This Island, Summer, and The Color Purple for which she won the 2006 Tony for Best Actress in a Musical) dominates the stage as Childress’ heroine Wiletta. Like Julia Augustine in her Wedding Band, and Tomorrow-Marie in her Wine in the Wilderness, roles Childress mostly would have liked to have played, LaChanze’s Wiletta is feisty, sophisticated and ultimately outspoken to the possible detriment to her career. Cooper is excellent as a man who has gotten by all his life by telling white people what they want to hear. As the director, Zegen is a bit bland in a thankless role of an egotist who doesn’t know he is a racist, as is Mickiewicz as the put-upon stage manager. As the newcomers to the profession, Danielle Campbell and Brandon Micheal Hall exude the innocence of inexperience. Jessica Frances Dukes is amusing as Millie Davis, an actress who is only out for the finer things in life. Completely credible are Stephenson as the neurotic second-rate actor who manages to get a great deal of work and Jones in the small role of the elderly doorman who lives on his memories but is still a gentleman.
Emilio Sosa’s costumes for the actors and theater staff are beautiful for an era when people still dressed up to go to work. The set design by Arnulfo Maldonado which is different for the two rehearsals is suitable and utilitarian without being memorable. Dan Moses Schreier’s sound design includes two atmospheric blues songs, one opening each act. The hair and wig design by Cookie Jordan are particularly noteworthy. The subtle lighting by Kathy A. Perkins suggests a theater which is all dark corners. It is to be regretted that Alice Childress’ Trouble in Mind had to wait this long to reach Broadway but it was worth the wait. Ironically, it can be better appreciated now when so many revelations have come out than back in the late 1950’s when it might have been dismissed as going too far.
Trouble in Mind (through January 9, 2022)
Roundabout Theatre Company
American Airlines Theatre, 227 W. 42nd Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-719-1300 or visit http://www.roundabouttheatre.org
Running time: two hours and 15 minutes including one intermission