Broadway review by Adam Feldman
The first day of rehearsals for a 1950s Broadway play about lynching is about to begin, and a seasoned Black actress is showing a younger castmate the ropes. “Don’t get too cocky. They don’t like that,” Wiletta (LaChanze) advises John (Brandon Michael Hall) on the subject of how to deal with their white managers. “Laugh! Laugh at everything they say, makes ’em feel superior.” The beautiful Wiletta has a smile that lights up a room, and she knows how to turn it on whether she’s happy or not; John may chafe at her advice—”Sounds kinda Uncle Tommish,” he says—but she has been in the business long enough to know that a business is what it is: not theater, as he imagines, but show business. (“Colored folks ain’t in no theater.”) And in this system, even on the rare occasions that they get to play a role that isn’t a nanny or a maid, Black performers remain the help.
So begins Alice Childress’s trenchant Trouble in Mind, which debuted Off Broadway in 1955 and has now reached the Great White White for the first time in an exemplary production directed by Charles Randolph-Wright. Prospects for a Broadway transfer in the 1950s, a pre-curtain announcement informs us, fell through when Childress refused to soften the play’s ending. As a result, Trouble in Mind has largely fallen into obscurity, which makes this Roundabout Theatre Company revival feel like even more of a revelation. It’s as though an old curtain had been lifted from a mirror: To a startling degree, the play anticipates many of the conversations that have taken place in the past two years about the devaluation of Black artists in the theater world. (“We have to go further and do better,” someone concludes.) What the revival demonstrates, with humor and insight, is not that Childress somehow foresaw today’s concerns, but that these same concerns have been around—and, in a real way, suppressed—for a very long time.
The play that Wiletta and John are rehearsing is an issue drama called The Chaos in Belleville, directed by a callow Hollywood type named Manners (as in mind your) who has modern ideas about truth and motivation in acting. Though well-intentioned, the play reflects that it has been created by white men for a white audience. “If we’re superior we should prove it by our actions,” declares its white ingenue, played by the fresh-from-Yale Judy (Danielle Campbell). The trouble of the title arises when Wiletta starts trying to offer actual creative input about the realism—or lack thereof—of the character she is portraying: the mother of a young man intent on voting, despite the danger that poses to him in the Deep South. “Darling, don’t think,” Manners (Michael Zegen) tells her. “You’re great until you start thinking.”
“I hate the kind of play that bangs you over the head with the message,” says Wiletta’s blustery white costar Bill (Don Stephenson). What keeps Trouble in Mind from being such a play is the texture that Childress provides: astute points about financial realities, funny observations about backstage power dynamics—Manners is a monster to his stage manager (Alex Mickiewicz) and an elderly Irish doorman (Simon Jones)—and, especially, knowing badinage among the play-within-a-play’s Black performers. The actors playing them shine. Chuck Cooper gives a magnificent performance as the veteran character man Sheldon, who has witnessed a lynching firsthand, and Jessica Frances Dukes is a hoot as the showy but practical Millie. But Trouble in Mind puts its main spotlight on LaChanze, who holds the whole play firmly in hand. She is this production’s other revelation: Although she has played serious roles in musicals over the course of her 35-year career, this is the first time she has had the lead in a Broadway play. “I want to be an actress,” says Wiletta. “Hell, I’m gonna be one, you hear me?” An actress LaChanze proves herself to be, and not just when she’s singing, and a hell of a good one at that.
Trouble in Mind. American Airlines Theatre (Broadway). By Alice Childress. Directed by Charles Randolph-Wright. With LaChanze, Chuck Cooper, Michael Zegen, Jessica Frances Dukes. Running time: 2hrs 10mins. One intermission.
Trouble in Mind | Photograph: Courtesy Joan Marcus