I once asked a famed Tony-winning Broadway director, what is the point of a revival? Is it to tell us how far we’ve come or to tell us how far we have to go? The answer that the director gave me was a simple yes. If the same question was asked about the glorious revival, and belated Broadway debut, of Alice Childress’s play Trouble in Mind, the answer would definitely be a resounding yes. Though the play was written in 1955, it pulsates with such vitality that it feels like it was written yesterday, showing the audience that while some things have changed in 66 years, others have stayed maddeningly the same.
In 1955, Childress’s play Trouble in Mind premiered off Broadway and was well-received critically. The play was optioned for Broadway with a caveat: Childress had to tone down her play about racism in the American theatre and make it more comfortable for the ostensibly white audience that would be seeing it. Childress refused, and Trouble in Mind was relegated to the footnotes of American theatre history, never achieving the kind of mainstream success that it deserved. Until now, when it has been given its much-delayed Broadway debut 66 years later.
Childress’s contemporaries included Lorraine Hansberry and her play A Raisin in the Sun. While Hansberry’s play dealt with the overt, capital-R racism of housing discrimination, Childress’s dealt with a common, insidious form of racism, that of well-meaning liberals — those who Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. called the white moderates, “more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice.”
Trouble in Mind is a workplace comedy, about a group of Black actors and two white actors gathering, in Arnulfo Maldonado’s shabby chic set, to rehearse a new Broadway play about a lynching in the American South. The intentions are valid: to move the white audience into sympathizing with the Black experience. Except the play is written by a white playwright and overseen by a white director, and all of the Black characters are servants and stereotypes that only scrape and bow to their white employers.
Trouble in Mind doesn’t mention microaggressions but that is exactly what happens during this rehearsal process, such as how the white actress Judy (an authentically oblivious Danielle Campbell) never hangs up her own coat and always gives it to one of the Black actors, or when director Al Manners (played by Michael Zegen, at his most unlikeable) keeps on interrupting Black actress Wiletta (an electrifying LaChanze) when she’s speaking.
The audience sees the actors rehearse the fictional play, pushed by the abusive Al to find the “truth” and motivations of their characters. Except the Black characters were written by a white man. Trouble in Mind asks whether it is possible to authentically play something that is inherently inauthentic, and whether doing so is actually upholding the racism that these artists say they want to abolish.
The play-within-a-play concept means that director Charles Randolph-Wright has a particular challenge: make the characters in the narrative seem human while making the play-within-a-play realistic to the period without falling into pastiche and encouraging the audience to laugh at the Black actors. Randolph-Wright threads that needle finely; the audience are charmed by the actors and their interpersonal dynamics. Then when rehearsals start for the play-within-a-play, it is clear where the characters have had to compromise themselves, so moments when the Black actors have to play stereotypes, the discomfort is pronounced.
Trouble in Mind runs at 2 hours and 10 minutes, but once it gets going, Randolph-Wright keeps it moving briskly like a runaway train. And when the inevitable crash comes, it is breathtaking.
At the center of the play is LaChanze’s Wiletta, who is tired of playing the maid and wants to be a legitimate actress. Dressed in Emilio Sosa’s sumptuous period costumes, LaChanze’s natural magnetism means that it is even more offensive when Wiletta is forced to be sidelined in the narrative. Wiletta’s frustrations are a slow build but when she inevitably breaks into an earth-shattering monologue in the second act, it’s not only earned, but necessary.
The rest of the characters are not as fully developed as Wiletta, which is a shame. But the cast is so dynamic that even when they are in the background, you want to look at them and take in the entire tableau — particularly Chuck Cooper and Jessica Frances Dukes, who are skilled at conveying depth, even contempt, in just looks and small actions.
Childress wrote Trouble in Mind because of her frustrations at the lack of substantive roles for Black actors. Today, Black actors, and actors of color, are still trying to go beyond playing stereotypes on stage and on screen. Those same actors have come together to release the We See You, White American Theatre letter last year. In a time when Broadway is going through its own reckoning with its history of erasure, this revival of Trouble in Mind asks, how far have we truly come? Perhaps if the play had gotten its Broadway premiere 66 years ago, it would have become the American classic it deserved to be. And we would have tackled the conversation around representation, stereotypes, cultural appropriation, and liberal hypocrisy even sooner, and perhaps moved past them.
Trouble in Mind may have come to Broadway 66 years too late, but in a time when the American public is currently leaning towards comfort and wanting to hide America’s racist past from the classroom, the play is holding up a mirror to society, especially the sector that considers itself progressive. Sixty-six years ago, society chose to look away. Perhaps the play’s premiere on Broadway is a sign we are finally ready to truly look at ourselves.
Photo credit: LaChanze, Chuck Cooper, and Michael Zegen in Roundabout Theatre Company's Trouble in Mind. (Photo by Joan Marcus)