The In-Person Broadway Experience: Roundabout Theatre’s Trouble In Mind
As the ghost light is rolled off to the wings, the actor played by a star arrives, taking it all in. As she should. It’s a pretty awe-inspiring moment. The history of this play is almost as compelling of a story as the powerful production currently running at Roundabout’s American Airlines Theatre on 42nd Street until early January. Alice Childress‘ smart and solid play, Trouble In Mind, written and previously performed off-Broadway in 1955, is finally making its Broadway debut, and even though it arrives so many years after it should have, it feels perfectly timed for our present-day experience. Stymied by producers back in the day who wanted it ‘toned down’ for Broadway, Childress held firm to her vision and for all that the play stood for. She wasn’t going to lighten it up for Broadway’s tender consumption. She was going to wait it out (I imagine), holding her breath for a moment in time when the play in its entirety would be embraced for the work of genius it truly is. That time is now.
Starring the strong and electric LaChanze in the lead role, backed up by a stellar smart cast, Trouble In Mind struts strong onto the stage as if it and the world knew that the timing was right. It’s a behind-the-scenes look at theatre, back then, and essentially now, in the way racism, prejudice, sexism, and bigotry are woven in, sometimes underneath the obvious, but also straight up in your face. LaChanze brilliantly embodies the role of Wiletta Mayer, a celebrated actress who has established a solid career playing stereotypical maids and such. She’s proud of her success, even as she knows that the range she is given is a short leash, not a long one. She beautifully demonstrates this in those opening moments once John Evans arrives, most handsomely, to the stage, shimmering of the great Sydney Poitier at every turn of phrase and form. She thoughtful tries to ‘help’ guide the young actor, played engagingly by the wonderful and appealing Brandon Michael Hall (ABC’s “The Mayor“), navigate the complicated system in a way that won’t cause him problems. She has seen it all, and found her way. After the “Uncle Tommish” tone is dutifully pointed out to Wiletta, she quickly responds from her years of studied interaction. She wisely (she thinks) states with all the confidence in the world, “It is Tommish… but they do it more than we do. They call it bein’ a ‘yes man.’ You either do it and stay or don’t do it and get out.”
He has other ideas. He sees a different trajectory for himself and his career. “Where do you think I was planning to go…right to the top,” he says, but Wiletta knows what lies ahead, and she thinks she knows the way, but Trouble In Mind is just that. These insidious gambits become the processing problem inside Wiletta’s soul, and we hear it sink into the floorboards of that stage uncomfortably. “White folks can’t stand unhappy Negroes,” she assuredly states, “so laugh, laugh when it ain’t funny at all.” These are supposed to be words of wisdom, but in that rehearsal space, beautifully created by Arnulfo Maldonado (RTC’s Kingdom Come) with dynamically constructed costuming by Emilio Sosa (Broadway’s Lady Day…), subtle shifts of light by designer Kathy A. Perkins (Alabama Shakespeare’s Pipeline), and a strong sound design by Dan Moses Schreier (Broadway’s Gary. A Sequel), they become increasingly difficult to swallow, especially for the woman who has lived by those idioms for the majority of her successful career. That is, until now.
Directed with a strong pulse to the proceedings by Charles Randolph-Wright (My Destiny Productions’ Born For This), Trouble In Mind holds class and court today on white privilege to recorded applause. The rhythm and pacing within register the strength required of these characters, delivering the awakening with gusto and an appreciation to the time and place. Set in a theatre during rehearsals for a new play called Chaos in Belleville, Wiletta is pushed and pulled around by the play’s up-and-coming stage director Al Manners, played to bully perfection by Michael Zegen (New Group’s Bob & Carol…). It’s an uncomfortably sadistic engagement, almost from the get-go, as he bullies the actress around unapologetically. Pretending, or even believing to be doing something liberal and noble, we easily see the opposite seeping in whenever the power structure is poked at by Wiletta. Manners is a cruel ass of a unaware white man, privileged and arrogant; a true hypocrite at almost every turn of the dial. He speaks with condescension to everyone that comes into contact with him, including the wise old stagehand, Henry, beautifully portrayed by Simon Jones (Broadway’s Farinelli and the King). He belittles the women in the cast, talks over and ignores input from his Black cast, and mistreats his assistant, Eddie Fenton, well played by Alex Mickiewicz (RTC’s The Last Match), at every possible moment he can devise. His defense of self, masked under the guise of ‘I-am-not-a-racist,’ is almost too much to take in, but Zegen finds his way through, making him purposefully real, and completely authentic. The only way this part could be more true and timely is to change his character’s name to Rudin.
Fleshing out the dynamic, the impressive Jessica Frances Dukes (“Ozark“) as actress Millie Davis solidly delivers forth the essence of their existence on stage. “Last show I was in, I wouldn’t even tell my relatives. All I did was shout “Lord, have mercy!” for almost two hours every night.” Wiletta and Millie have structured successful careers out of playing stereotypical maids to their White Saviors, under the names of every flower or jewel to be found. All void of any honorable respect or without any attempt for compassionate understanding and wisdom within these women and the parts they are being asked to play. The ideals of quality Acting have been artistically extracted from their performances, particularly within Manners’ vision of this play-within-a-play, leaving these actors in a stereotypical purgatory without a voice; world-weary and resentful. They are resigned to the tones and the implications structured within, with the formidable Chuck Cooper (MTC/Broadway’s Choir Boy) as old-time actor Sheldon Forrester donning the same whittling tool without much of a determined push-back. Except for a side glance and an insulted, passive aggressive turn of phrase.
Cooper’s Forrester, though, unlike the Black women in this play-with-in-a-play, is given his own moment to captivate and be heard. He stills the room with his personal memory of seeing a lynching when he was a child. It’s a moment of tension that fills the air, especially when reading later that Childress’ goal in the writing of her one-act play in 1949, Florence was to “settle an argument with fellow actors (Sidney Poitier among others) who said that in a play about Negroes and whites, only a ‘life and death thing’ like lynching is interesting on stage” (E., Abramson, Doris (1969). Negro playwrights in the American theatre, 1925-1959. New York: Columbia University Press). That concept shifts the formulations of that scene, and the play, giving it a depth that stands tall.
Taking that in with a deep uncomfortable breath, the play attempts to shine a light on this corruption, and the microaggressive way these actors are treated. Manners’ has a stance that is difficult to behold, especially in his timely racist approach to the black actors in the play, in comparison to his white lead actors, Bill O’Wray, impressively played by Don Stephenson (Broadway’s Titanic), and the wide-eyed newcomer, Judy Sears, earnestly and obliviously portrayed by Danielle Campbell (CW’s “Tell Me a Story“). The levels of interaction stand out strongly, although, even from Judy’s wealthy familial state of privilege, she can’t escape the obvious controlling misogyny thrown at her by the overbearing Manners. She accepts it in the same uncomfortable manner, from almost the same handbook that is starting to weigh heavily on Wiletta.
Forced up against her inner wall of truth, Wiletta finds herself backed into a corner of almost her own making. Will she continue to betray her soul and her desire by embracing once again the stereotype that feels utterly wrong and inhuman? Or will she take a stand even if it threatens the very career she has worked so diligently to build from the ground up against all odds? Will she stand alone against the oppression? Or will the others join her, and change the way Black characters are portrayed, and written, for the world’s consumption?
It’s a powerful stance, standing up and alone, asking to be seen and heard as honestly and humanely as possible. Childress knew what she wanted from her first full-length play, Trouble in Mind. After being produced at Stella Holt’s Greenwich Mews Theatre in 1955 and running to acclaim for 91 performances, the play about a Black actress having to make that difficult choice between career and authenticity was optioned by a few Broadway producers, with conditions. They wanted to bring the show to Broadway, but only if the playwright would lighten the critical load, and change the ending to something more forgiving and uplifting. She refused. Choosing, like Wiletta, to honor her self and her community over career gratification and financial success. We don’t find out what this stance will cost Wiletta going forward, but we do what this decision cost Childress a lot. She didn’t live to see her formidable play make its way to Broadway, the Great White Way. It cost her, this play, and her potential audience that generational, historical moment of being seen on that stage. They all had to wait almost seventy years for that crucial moment. But now, thanks to all those involved in this Roundabout production, Trouble In Mind can now take its rightful place. It’s a shame Childress, who died in 1994, wasn’t here to see it happen, too late to take her bow. But I’m sure she was there in spirit, smiling proudly alongside the phenomenal LaChanze and the rest of the talented cast and crew.