NEW YORK | Alice Childress’ searing play “Trouble in Mind” has finally made it to Broadway and the only frustrating thing about the show is that it has taken this long.
The two-act play takes place — appropriately enough — on a Broadway stage and is an uncomfortable exploration of the racial divide in the 1950s. So it works perfectly in the 2020s.
Childress wrote a satire of the white theater scene at the time, poking holes in liberal banalities and the white commitment to Black equality. It will still take your breath away, making it a mandatory stop in the fall season.
The strong Roundabout Theatre Company’s production that opened Thursday stars LaChanze and Chuck Cooper still standing on fissures that were raw in the 1950s, from how agreeable to white authority Blacks must pretend to behave in order to work to the plea of white actors uncomfortable with too much Black boldness.
“Trouble in Mind” opened to acclaim off-Broadway in 1955, and was going to move to Broadway in 1957. It would have been the first play on Broadway by a Black woman, but Childress refused a request by producers to make it more palatable for white Broadway-goers. (Lorraine Hansberry’s “A Raisin in the Sun” would later break the Black female playwright barrier in 1959.)
The show in 2021 at the American Airlines Theatre is directed by Charles Randolph-Wright, but the fictional director onstage is the deliciously named Al Manners (Michael Zegen). He starts out as edgy and inclusive — demanding something he calls “the firm texture of truth” — but soon proves to be straight-up dictatorial and ultimately racist.
Childress uses the play-within-the-play “Chaos in Belleville” — a truly bad work with stereotypical Black characters meant to exorcise liberal white guilt about a Southern lynching — to make her spikiest points. The term Uncle Tom is thrown about with regularity.
LaChanze plays Wiletta, an actress of a certain age who bristles at the shallowness of her role and the illogical third act. Outside the theater, newspapers talk of rocks thrown at children trying to desegregate schools.
Wiletta counsels John, a younger actor (Brandon Micheal Hall) about the Catch-22s facing Black actors: Be confident but not cocky, be natural and don’t let on you’ve taken classes. “They don’t like us to go to school,” she says. John says he adores the theater. “Show business,” she corrects him. “It’s just a business. Colored folks ain’t in no theater.”
Backstage, Wiletta and her Black co-stars — including Cooper as the veteran actor Sheldon and Jessica Frances Dukes as pragmatic Millie — joke grimly about the roles on offer these days.
The women play nannies and maids named Crystal, Pearl or Opal or Gardenia, Magnolia or Chrysanthemum. Millie says during one show that she did, she just shouted “Lord, have mercy!” for two hours.
As they perform the play-within-the-play, the company reveals how bad it is: Wiletta plays a maid whose son is in mortal danger from a white mob yet inexplicably irons shirts. Sheldon will soon be asked to whittle a stick. The Black characters must sing church hymns soulfully.
Wiletta soon snaps, despite being told by the director that he has tried to give her roles dignity. “You know what your dignity is?” she shoots back. “A old black straw hat with a flower stikin’ up in front, hands folded cross my stomach, sayin’ the same damn fool things.”
Cooper’s Sheldon is at the other extreme: He recognizes the paltry options but is willing to play along. “White folks is stickin’ together, stickin’ together, stickin’ together… we fightin.'” Wiletta will surely keep fighting and the play ends on an uncertain note. Opening night may be rocky.
Full credit to Roundabout for seeing that a play written at the time of Emmett Till’s murder needed to be seen by a crowd who lived through the murder of George Floyd. Childress died in 1994 without a Broadway show. It’s our turn to show her she was right not to water it down; it’s our turn to make it into a hit.
Mark Kennedy is at http://twitter.com/KennedyTwits