The Montgomery bus boycott, the Hollywood blacklist, and the lynching of Emmett Till were all current events when “Trouble in Mind” debuted Off-Broadway in 1955, and Alice Childress included them in her play, but only indirectly or in throwaway lines. The story she told front and center in this, her first full-length play, which is debuting on Broadway 66 years later, is about the theater: “Trouble in Mind” takes place entirely during rehearsals for a (fictional) Broadway play.
Yes, the play-within-the-play, entitled “Chaos in Belleville,” is about a lynching of someone who tried to vote. And the interracial cast, through their actions, reactions and interactions during the rehearsal process, demonstrate inequities in race and gender that echo those in the wider world.
But I suspect that Roundabout would not have thought to bring this backstage comedy about racism in the theater to Broadway in 2021 had not the killing of George Floyd sparked world wide support for the Black Lives Matter movement, and led to a movement that can be called Black Theater Matters. That makes this play more than just a historical curiosity. It makes it stunningly relevant for people who care about the theater…and less so for people who don’t. Luckily, your life need not revolve around the theater to be hooked by the magnetic performance of LaChanze. In real life a reigning diva of Broadway musicals, she portrays Wiletta Mayer, an actress who has spent more than a quarter century playing mammies and maids, and now a mother; she finally has had enough.
Childress knew well the world of the theater, having been a successful actress for years before turning to writing. She appeared on Broadway in 1944 in an all-Black production of Philip Yordan’s “Anna Lucasta.” One of her co-stars Georgia Burke had tensions with the white director, but held her tongue, for fear of losing her job. (In what feels like having the last laugh, she lived until the age of 107.) Burke is said to be the model for Wiletta.
Over the two hours of “Trouble in Mind,” we see darkly humorous snippets of scenes from “Chaos in Belleville,” with its ludicrous stereotypes (such as the Black characters fervently praying.) Wiletta first pretends to be cheerful and accommodating, then stews; spaces out; seethes, and finally publicly clashes with the white director, Al Manners (portrayed by Michael Zegen, best known for his role as Joel Maisel in “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.”) Manners, a film director who is making his Broadway debut, is what charitably could be called a piece of work — an ill-mannered jerk very taken with his own talent. He plays mind games with the cast to get better performances out of them, and tries to avoid phone conversations with his ex-wife, complaining about paying for his son’s braces. He flirts inappropriately (which we would consider sexual harassment these days) with the white woman in the cast, a naïve recent graduate of the Yale School of Drama named Judy (Danielle Campbell.) These take-no-prisoners glimpses into his character pave the way for a savagely satirical portrait of a well-meaning liberal. Manners says things like “Black, white, green, or purple, I maintain there is only one race… the human race.” So, when Winetta openly complains that the character she’s portraying , the mother of the would-be voter, would not just urge him to give himself up, Manners gives a long lecture that we’ve been primed not just to discount, but to view as nakedly racist:
“The American public is not ready to see you the way you want to be seen because, one, they don’t believe it, two, they don’t want to believe it, and three, they’re convinced they’re superior…”
There are a total of nine actors in “Trouble in Mind,” the size of the cast one of the signs of a play written years ago. If a few of the characters come to feel extraneous, and some of the scenes feel like filler, the actors each have at least one scene where they are put to good use. Brandon Micheal Hall portrays John Nevis, a brash young Black newcomer to acting, which gives the playwright an opportunity to have Wiletta impart her hard gained wisdom about dealing with the white people in charge of show business: “White folks can’t stand unhappy Negroes… so laugh, laugh when it ain’t funny at all.” John generally ignores her advice, thinking she’s behind the times, and starts sounding just as glad-handing and fatuous as Al Manners. Chuck Cooper, a standout as usual, portrays Sheldon, a Black actor who has learned the lesson of accommodation too well. But there’s one arresting moment when Manners is urging the cast to express more fear. “I’m not asking you to dream up some fantastic horror… it’s a lynching. We’ve never actually seen such a thing, thank God… but allow your imagination to soar, to take hold of it… think.” Sheldon speaks up and says he has, in fact, seen a lynching.
It’s arresting not just because of the graphic story he then tells, but because it made me wonder:
There have been many plays in the seven decades since Childress wrote “Trouble in Mind” that satirized and criticized the depiction of Black characters on stage and screen ( George C. Wolfe’s “Colored Museum,” Brenden Jacobs-Jenkins’s “An Octoroon,” Jackie Sibblies Drury’s “Fairview” are often cited.) But how many plays on Broadway have there been about lynching?
Parade, the musical by Jason Robert Brown and Alfred Uhry, was about the 1915 lynching of Jewish American Leo Frank. I know there were a series of anti-lynching plays written by African-American playwrights at the turn of the twentieth century, but I don’t know if any of them were on Broadway.
And I’ve seen a recent musical about Emmett Till and a play about another real-life victim, a 20-year-old woman named Mary Turner, but one was at a theater festival, and the other at the Billie Holiday Theater in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn.
Much has been made of the thwarted plan to move “Trouble in Mind” to Broadway in 1957, which would have made Childress the first Black woman playwright to have a play on Broadway. (That distinction falls instead to Lorraine Hansberry, for “A Raisin in the Sun.” in 1959) The producers wanted a more optimistic ending, and Childress had refused. Did Childress believe the American public was not ready for an anti-lynching play, or any blunt play about racism – that the only way to get it before the public at large was through the filter of satire, and the frame of theater about theater?
Trouble in Mind
By Alice Childress
Directed by Charles Randolph-Wright.
Roundabout’s American Airlines Theater through January 9, 2022
Running time: two hours and ten minutes including one intermission.
Sets by Arnulfo Maldonado, costumes by Emilio Sosa, lights by Kathy A. Perkins,
Sound by Dan Moses Schreier, hair and wigs by Cookie Jordan, original music by Nona Hendryx.
Cast: LaChanze as Wiletta Mayer, Michael Zegen as Al Manners, Chuck Cooper as Sheldon Forrester, Danielle Campbell as Judy Sears, Jessica Frances Dukes as Millie Davis, Brandon Micheal Hall as John Nevis, Simon Jones as Henry, Alex Mickiewicz as Eddie Fenton and Don Stephenson as Bill O’Wray.