The big news of the new Broadway season — aside from the fact that there is a new Broadway season, albeit with masks and vaccination mandate — is its racial diversity. No fewer than six plays by Black authors have opened so far this fall— more than the entire number of straight plays that have opened in some lean fall seasons. I have not seen all of them, and have been disappointed in a couple. But I vowed to myself that for my next theater review, I would come to praise, not to gripe. So let’s talk about Trouble in Mind.
This is the Alice Childress play that originally opened off-Broadway in 1955, got excellent reviews, and was set to transfer to Broadway, where it would have made Childress the first Black playwright to have a work produced there. But the production was scuttled, reportedly because Childress refused to make some changes to tone down the racial material for the Broadway audience. Now, 65 years later, in a much more receptive climate, the play is finally making its Broadway bow.
Trouble in Mind is a backstage drama that is, at once, completely a product of its time and strikingly ahead of it. A group of actors, most of them Black, assemble for rehearsals of a new Broadway show — a social-protest drama about a lynching in the contemporary South. There’s a lot of expository dialogue, to introduce the characters, and an old-fashioned three-act story arc (though played as two acts now). But the surprise is how the play’s racial theme — the demeaning, stereotyped roles that Black actors were forced to put up with in those benighted years — is presented with such insight, subtlety, and wit, decades before our racially attuned, Oscar-so-white era.
What impressed me first about Trouble in Mind was how naturally and convincingly Childress creates the backstage ambience: the casual banter, the insider gossip, the sense of community even among actors meeting for the first time. And how deftly, without pushing or preaching, she conveys the frustrations they face in a white-dominated theater world. A war-weary stage veteran (Chuck Cooper) briefly stumbles over the word “iffen” while reading through his lines— before recognizing it and matter-of-factly moving on (as iffen nothing were amiss). A proud but beaten-down actress (Jessica Frances Dukes) complains that in her last role, “all I did was shout ‘Lord have mercy’ for almost two hours,” but what she wants most of all is a chance to wear something onstage besides “them baggy cotton dresses.”
As they rehearse their lines — for a demanding, pretentious, Method-obsessed white director (Michael Zegen) — they plow ahead with varying degrees of resignation and resentment, ironic detachment and stoic professionalism. It’s somehow touching (and, I suspect, true to the period) that they treat their condescending roles, not with a sense of moral outrage or racial grievance, but simply as a professional indignity.
The exception is Wiletta (played wonderfully by the Broadway musical star LaChanze), another stage veteran who won some notoriety as a singer in such shows as Brownskin Melody (the name alone is enough to evoke an entire world of racial injustice). Though she begins as the voice of accommodation — instructing the rookie in the company to laugh at any feeble joke the director makes — her discomfort with the show builds, until she finally rebels against a scene she regards as too false to play.
The resulting confrontation, however, prompts no easy cheers or catharsis. Childress is shrewd enough to give the pompous director a surprisingly cogent rebuttal — “there’s damned few of us interested in putting on a colored show at all, much less one that’s going to say anything”— and the play ends ambiguously, with no sense of triumph, or even progress. That would have to wait a few decades — for a time when this perceptive, honest play from the 1950s would seem, at last, totally up to date.