“Trouble in Mind” is a monumental work, whose time has finally come on Broadway! It delivers on all thrusters. It is catastrophically brilliant, catastrophically funny and catastrophically troubling. Alice Childress’ bold work asks why must Black actors play demeaning characters and play the game of appeasing and cajoling white directors just to keep working. Why are white directors given this right to rule over Black actors and make them play mammys and buffoons and care nothing about their dignity and self-respect? How troubling is it that this was the state of Broadway theater in the 1950s, and that only recently have things begun to change in terms of the roles that Blacks perform on Broadway?
Alice Childress bravely addressed an issue that’s truly part of Black actors’ history on Broadway, but she did it with a great deal of humor. She also showed how white directors would cast people in these stereotypical, offensive plays where they were demeaned and considered inferior to the white characters. She showed how overly dramatic and buffoonish Black characters were made to be portrayed. The saddest part about this is realizing that Childress’ work is not just something from her imagination: for generations, Black actors had to endure only being allowed to play these types of roles. Black actors had to accept being the simpleton on stage and being the “yes’m” character to the superior white character who was in charge of their lives, their families and their daily means of existence. Childress’ play may have us laughing as the Black actors perform these roles to perfection, but also let it be known that they are doing this because they have to earn a living, they have to eat and so have no choice in the matter. But through Childress’ lead character Wiletta, stupendously played by LaChanze, we see a woman who has decided “I can’t keep holding my tongue! I can’t keep cajoling the racist, white director. I have to speak up, despite what that might mean for me and my fellow cast members.”
LaChanze delivers a lavishly, stunning performance that lets you see all of the levels of this character, an actress who has been in the game for a while and has played it very well, doing the stereotypical character parts, but when she is given the chance to do her first Broadway play, she desires more. When confronted with the ridiculousness of her character (a mother who lives on a plantation with her husband and son and is now worried because her son wants to vote, something the whites don’t feel Negroes have a right to do; and while she tries to get him not to vote, once he does, she gives him over to the sheriff to be put in jail for his own safety. What?), Wiletta tries repeatedly to speak to the white director, Al Manners, played by Michael Zegen, a pompous, racist, man who dismisses her attempts to make the script more authentic, and verbally abuses the cast, stage manager and the theater doorman Henry. This director is the perfect example of white privilege as he talks to the cast in any way he wants and they have to laugh at his jokes and agree with whatever far-out approach he wants them to take in portraying these groveling, agreeable, stereotypical Black characters.
The other Black actors in this engrossing work illustrate how Black actors took the abuse because they needed to survive. Jessica Frances Dukes is absolutely priceless as the spirited Millie, who comes to rehearsal with a mink coat and new outfits and has a husband with a steady job but, when push comes to shove, has to admit that she needs this play to happen. Tony Award winner Chuck Cooper brings a great depth and multiple levels to his character Sheldon. This is an older actor who is used to playing the simpleton and is willing to do it to provide a roof over his head. He is also the Black actor that doesn’t want to rock the boat. He will play the exaggerated preacher complete with singing or the simpleton father who sits in the corner and whittles. He is the Black man that realizes you have to play the game and that when one Black person in a cast creates trouble it can adversely affect everyone. He is also a character who has experienced trauma and that also keeps him grounded to realize that he must succeed.
Brandon Michael Hill playing John, a young Black actor, is stirringly naïve and then brutally awoken to the reality of the life of a Black actor on Broadway in the 1950s. He sees firsthand that playing the game doesn’t just require playing demeaning roles, but can also mean that you come face to face with the humiliation that the white director can impose on Black cast members at his will. Danielle Campbell is marvelous as Judy, the white actress in the play who is the plantation owner’s daughter, but seems to also have an empathy for the negroes. Campbell’s character at first questions the racist words her character uses, but eventually accepts them. She feels like they are all puppets to be controlled by others. She also is an example of white privilege, where, if she fails she will just go back to the home of her rich white parents. Don Stephenson plays Bill, the racist white character in the play who makes speeches telling the crowd that whites are superior to the darkies and as superiors they have to speak calmly to the darkies. He also represents the white actor who could take or leave this play because he has many other projects he’s working on. Simon Jones is absolutely adorable and wise as Henry, the verbally abused doorman who is the voice of reason for Wiletta and her cheerleader. Alex Mickiewicz is sympathetic as Eddie the stage manager, who is also abused by the arrogant, pushy director, but is also someone who has options in his work choices and doesn’t need for anything.
All of these characters are poignantly bought together through the splendid direction of Charles Randolph Wright. Wright’s direction brings out all the nuances of Childress’ masterpiece! “Trouble in Mind” is playing at the American Airlines Theatre on West 42nd Street. While you will laugh a lot, this production is also thought-provoking and a documentary of sorts depicting our humiliating history on Broadway. Go and see what our people went through and in some cases are still going through to work on the Great White Way! “Trouble in Mind” trembles with truths!
For more information, visit www.roundabouttheatre.org.