Before a word is spoken, the power of Trouble in Mind (American Airlines Theatre, to Jan. 9, 2022) is in its very presence on a Broadway stage. As Todd Haimes, the artistic director and CEO of the Roundabout Theatre Company, writes in the program, this Broadway premiere should have happened 64 years ago.
Trouble in Mind, which is about racism in the theater—and whose debates and words and pain ring depressingly prescient today—was originally supposed to transfer from off-Broadway to, well, the truly Great White Way, in 1957, but the producers insisted that the playwright Alice Childress make “significant changes.” As Haimes writes: “She refused to soften her story about racism in the theatre, and the producers cancelled the transfer.”
Childress started in the theater as an actress, he writes, “but grew dissatisfied with the roles available for Black women and decided to create them herself, writing about people typically ignored onstage; the character of Wiletta was born out of this artistic breakthrough.”
Again, in a parallel through time, LaChanze, who plays Wiletta in this premiere superbly, is a founder of Black Theatre United, which has been at the forefront of advocating for change in theater itself, when it comes to “awareness, accountability, advocacy, and action.” Trouble in Mind is a play made up of a perfect and stark set of cultural confluences, and its timeliness, though frustrating, is also eerie.
Everything that Wiletta ultimately identifies as racism—the white gaze and white stereotyping of Black characters and lives, the lack of listening, the crumbs from the table that no one should be satisfied with—could and should be said today. Time melts away in the most damning way watching Trouble in Mind.
The play, directed with elegant precision by Charles Randolph-Wright and costumed beautifully by Emilio Sosa, begins with the cast gathering at a theater for a first rehearsal of Chaos in Belleville, a play about a Black man, played by young Black actor John Nevins (Brandon Michael Hall), trying to evade a lynch mob. Wiletta plays his mother, and the script—by a white playwright—is full of melodramatic, stereotypical histrionics.
The white director of the play, Al Manners (Michael Zegen), is a vicious, reptilian presence, and Zegen plays him as written, which cannot be easy. We see in the #MeToo-prefiguring way he first treats the young white actress Judy (Danielle Campbell) that Manners is ironically named—he not only has zero manners; he is, it turns out, a bubbling, toxic puddle of white grievance.
The bright-eyed Nevins represents a future. He is taking classes—don’t tell his white bosses that, Wiletta cautions, they don’t like Black people to be educated—and he flirts easily with Judy, which Wiletta warns him away from. The older Black actor Sheldon Forrester (Chuck Cooper) represents a past of recognizing every injustice that Wiletta does, but he has learned to swim around the bigotry of the profession, to get on with the work, to do all he can to bypass anger and controversy. We’re all people, he says. His character must wordlessly whittle a stick for what seems like hours on end, and you sense that this is not the first stick Sheldon has aimlessly whittled on stage.
However, in a moment when the lights dim around him, he recalls that he too once witnessed a lynching, and Cooper evokes the decimating emotional gravity of the moment perfectly.
The glamorous Millie (Jessica Frances Dukes) has been just as stereotypically cast as her Black colleagues, yet carries herself with an ebulliently actressy air. But she sees everything as clearly, experiences it too, as Wiletta—and is also fed up with the unglamorous roles she gets. All of the Black actors have learned not to say anything—because this may lead to losing work—and at the beginning Wiletta even advises John to work around his white bosses’ ignorance and worse.
Childress shows how much biting of the tongue and suppression takes place, as those in a minority make their own strategies to survive, and the play also shows the moment that Wiletta’s own containment of frustration explodes in focused and sharp anger.
Childress identified many strata of prejudice in the play. For instance, white actor Bill O’Wray (Don Stephenson) thinks nothing of casually stating he will not eat with his Black cast mates. Spoiled rich kid Judy frets about having to return to her tony parents’ home in Bridgeport if the play fails—with Millie noting how she wishes that returning to such a gilded, comfortable place could be an experience of failure for her.
Manners eventually rages at Wiletta that he is doing his best to effect social change with the play he is directing. He tells Wiletta to be grateful for the work he has gotten her, and to play the role of the tragic Black mother with as much gusto as possible to engage the audience’s sympathies. The intention, he says, should be to feel sorry for the Black characters. Pity is the emotion he wants to elicit, rather than an identification of strength and respect. He then laments his own hardships, and places them on the same level as racial prejudice.
His speech comes after LaChanze has stunningly delivered the central powerful monologue of the production, which takes in scorning the “character parts” of mammies and the rest that Black actors have to play, as well as the absurdity of what they are asked to play. Why would she, as a mother, ask her son to leave their home and face the lynch mob, she asks. What sense does that make? Wiletta has had enough of white writers and directors getting Black lives and voices so wrong.
Trouble in Mind needed to be on Broadway in 1957, and it needs to be on Broadway now. It still feels radical to hear what Wiletta states so clearly and passionately about how racism works, not just in theater but as a cultural system. Trouble in Mind playing on Broadway now is an indictment of the present as much as an indictment of the past—a statement of the persistence of racism and inequality.
Childress knew enough of the world of which she wrote that there is no miraculous ending with a triumph of progress and equality. But Trouble in Mind does end with an emphatic taking of place, literally center stage, by Wiletta. In the shaft of rich purple light that bathes LaChanze, we can also finally imagine the same for Alice Childress. Whether fundamental change is finally achieved—64 long years later and counting—remains to be seen.