Better late than never.
Or rather: much, much better late than never.
As a pre-show announcement at the American Airlines Theatre makes clear, it took about 66 years for the pioneering Black playwright Alice Childress’s comedy-drama “Trouble in Mind” to make it to Broadway. Originally produced Off Broadway in 1955, the play was scheduled to transfer uptown — at least until the producers tried to pressure Childress into rewriting the play to soften the sharp points it makes about the racism prevalent in both American culture and the theater.
Childress declined; the transfer was called off. Register another little-known footnote in the long struggle for Black playwrights — and perhaps particularly Black female playwrights — to make their mark on the American theater, or have their contributions acknowledged. The story isn’t really surprising, except that now that audiences have a chance to see the play, its combination of biting humor and moments of powerfully moving drama would seem a potent formula for popular success in any era.
“Trouble in Mind” is entirely set backstage at, as it happens, a Broadway theater. The central character is Wiletta Mayer, an experienced actress (as was Childress), played by the marvelous LaChanze, who enters first and spends a few moments basking in the pleasure of being onstage again. She positively radiates a joy that instantly transmits itself to the audience; you feel as happy to be there as she is.
Wiletta is soon joined by most of the other actors cast in the play. John Nevins (Brandon Michael Hall) is an idealistic young man who is thrilled to be in his first show, and whom Wiletta soon begins schooling in the head-spinning contradictions of how Black actors are expected to behave. When he eagerly tells her he has studied acting, she says, “Don’t let the man know that … they want us to be naturals.” Then she adds, “Course they want you to be experienced, too,” and suggests he say he was in the last revival of “Porgy and Bess.” When he demurs that he might be too young, she replies, “They won’t know the difference.”
Millie Davis (a vibrantly funny Jessica Frances Dukes, making a smashing Broadway debut) enters wrapped in a fur coat and dressed to the hilt — as she bitterly acknowledges she never will be in character onstage. She and Wiletta have shared the stage in the past, and have a friendly if occasionally feisty and rivalrous relationship. “I wanted to read for your part,” Millie airily tells Wiletta, “but Mr. Manners said I was too young.”
Sheldon Forrester, played by the estimable Chuck Cooper, is the senior member of the cast, and perhaps the most experienced — so experienced that he’s recently been erroneously declared dead. He enters alongside Judy Sears (Danielle Campbell), one of only two white members of the cast, an ingénue type who shares John’s bright-eyed enthusiasm for the theater. Later, the second white cast member, Bill O’Wray (Don Stephenson), who will prove to be not so subtly racist — declining 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 makes clear that in the theater of the era, all the power resides firmly in the hands of the white directors, producers, playwrights and even actors. Black actors can appear onstage, but as both Millie and Wiletta note, their roles are strictly relegated to minor ones: either servants, stereotypes or generic symbols of suffering.
“Trouble in Mind,” directed by Charles Randolph-Wright, moves gradually toward a simmering confrontation between Wiletta and Al. Wiletta has the temerity to suggest that she might know a bit more about the character she is playing, a woman whose son is in danger of being lynched, than the white playwright who created her, and disputes a crucial point. Their conflict spurs an outburst from Al that feels almost as if it could have been written today, as he flies into a tantrum, asserting that just because he’s white, that doesn’t mean his life is a picnic. This gets a stony reaction from the Black cast members and elicits a groan or two from the audience.
Enjoyable as it is, with the comedy in particular honed to a slashing sharpness, Randolph-Wright’s production has some shaky aspects. Playing Al, a character who is written as callow and condescending even as he repeatedly insists he is a champion of equality in theater, Zegen pushes a little too hard on both aspects, threatening to turn Al into a too-glaring example of internalized racism. Similarly, Campbell’s performance as the naïve young Judy — whose suggestion that the cast all come visit her family in Bridgeport is received with outright mockery by the cast — cannot always find the proper balance between youthful innocence and overplayed obtuseness.
But in any case the play’s most powerful, and memorable, moments belong to Cooper and LaChanze. Cooper’s Sheldon virtually stops the show cold when he reveals that he once witnessed a lynching. Cooper’s quiet, focused, gradually intensifying description of his experience — Sheldon was a child at the time, but the wound still sears — reveals Childress’s writing at its most harrowing, and Cooper at his most supremely affecting.
And yet it is primarily the captivating LaChanze who carries the show by creating in Wiletta a fully realized, deeply felt portrait of a woman of warm if wry humor, inquisitive intelligence and, in the end, hard-won righteousness. Wiletta grows increasingly uneasy with her role and Al’s contemptuous dismissal of her objections, until her initially gentle suggestions solidify into sturdy, formidable resistance.
By the play’s end she has emerged as a figure who has come to realize that her dignity, and telling the truth that she and her forebears have lived, may be more important than any role. Her climactic monologue sends a breathless hush throughout the theater, as Wiletta, poised alone at center stage once again, faces a future in which her career may be uncertain but her integrity is assured.
“Trouble in Mind” opened at the American Airlines Theatre on Nov. 18, 2021.
Review Photo: Joan Marcus
Creative: Written by Alice Childress; Original Music by Nona Hendryx; Directed by Charles Randolph-Wright; Scenic Design by Arnulfo Maldonado; Costume Design by Emilio Sosa; Lighting Design by Kathy A. Perkins; Sound Design by Dan Moses Schreier.
Producers: Roundabout Theatre Company.
Cast: LaChanze, Danielle Campbell, Chuck Cooper, Jessica Frances Dukes, Brandon Micheal Hall, Simon Jones, Alex Mickiewicz, Don Stephenson and Michael Zegen.