So far this season, five plays by Black authors have opened on Broadway, each with something urgent to say. Whether desperate (“Pass Over”) or cheerful (“Chicken and Biscuits”), broadly representative (“Thoughts on Colored Man”) or laser-specific (“Lackawanna Blues”), they now talk to us about how a newspaper lives. Like newspapers, they are redone every day; when I came across “Thoughts on Color Man” recently, it was updated with a hot take on Kyle Rittenhouse’s essay.
However for pure crackle timing, the play most of the time is in fact the oldest: Alice Childress’s “Trouble in Mind,” which opened Thursday at the American Airlines Theater. Originally produced in 1955 in Greenwich Village, but derailed on its way to becoming Black’s first play to reach Broadway – a distinction that went to Lorraine Hansberry’s “A Raisin in the Sun” four years later – it only now gets the main attention it deserves, in a Roundabout Theater Company production that does justice to its complexity.
And justice, both broad and narrow, is the issue. What begins as a backstage satire of white ignorance and Black grace gradually widens and darkens into something much more mysterious: particularly an American tale of lost opportunity.
As Childress uses the structure of the play to express her theme, the grace naturally comes first, and Charles Randolph-Wright’s lively staging leads with warmth and humor. As mostly Black cast come together in a perfectly periodical (by Arnulf Maldonado) to begin rehearsing an “anti-lynching” melodrama called “Chaos in Belleville,” their brave chatter is often about fabricated summaries, mutual acquaintances, and glorious triumphs past. .
However, for Wiletta Mayer (LaChanze) – and for us as we listen – that past is already beginning to open up. Although she rhapsodized the doorman (Simon Jones) about a song she once performed on a show called “Brownskin Melody,” she and her colleague Millie Davis (Jessica Frances Dukes) were more often reduced to “flower” or “jewel.” roles: stereotypical black women with names like Gardenia, Magnolia, Crystal and Opal. In her most recent work, Millie says, “All I did was shout ‘Lord, have mercy!’ for almost two hours every night. ”
“Chaos in Belleville,” by a white playwright, is no better, despite its supposedly sympathetic theme. In it, Wiletta is set to play Ruby, and Millie to play Petunia: Women Working for a White Family in the Jim Crow South. When Ruby’s son, Job, gets into trouble after daring to vote, the women are left, as usual, to cry and sing.
Wiletta has no doubt that the play “stinks.” But then she also makes any main play she can reasonably hope to book. An idealistic young actor like John Nevins (Brandon Micheal Hall) – who was cast, on his first Broadway outing, as Job – may feel proud of becoming part of the theater, but Wiletta knows better.
“Colors aren’t in any theater,” she says. They are only in business.
As such, she and Millie – soon joined by Sheldon Forrester (Chuck Cooper), an old hand playing Ruby’s husband – are experts at not shaking the boat. They dress nicely (in Emilio Sosa costumes) and pretend enthusiasm. In a hilarious yet gigantic scene, Wiletta advises John that, in order to feel comfortable, white producers and directors need black actors to be stepping contradictions. They should be “natural” talents yet experienced, not overly needed and yet not too overbearing, have no opinions other than good and laugh at every joke.
If this seems extreme, read about the experiences of Black theater artists today. The question they asked, in manifestos and Twitter threads, is whether the systematic imbalance of power backstage is in any sense different from racism.
About 66 years ago, that was exactly Childress’s question as well, and once the white signs appear, it begins to be answered. We see that even the most powerless of them – a staged director (Alex Mickiewicz), a Yale-trained engineer (Danielle Campbell) and a neurotic traveler (Don Stephenson) – have more agency in their profession than any of the Blacks. characters do. The traveler, though not very good, never lacks work. (Stephenson, however, is an expert.) The shrewd complains that if “Chaos in Belleville” fails she will have to relocate back to her parents’ house in Connecticut, happily unaware that Sheldon is probably one week’s salary short of homelessness.
But it’s of course the director, Al Manners (Michael Zegen), who sits at the top of the beak, poking everyone’s nerves. An egoist whose latency of open-mindedness is easily stripped away, he regularly explodes into nasty movements that today would be understood (and yet perhaps tolerated) as big-man harassment. Although he calls Wiletta “dear” and “my beloved,” his growing intransigence in response to her growing discontent is the main source of conflict within the play.
Their struggle is a fascinating knot of racial politics and dramatic theory. In Zegen’s hit capture, Manners has the reptilian recklessness of esteemed Elia Kazan, bringing to the stage the new methods of Method acting he learned as a hack in Hollywood. However, Manners’ demands are completely inconsistent, and since Wiletta does not satisfy him despite “justifying” and “relating to” the nonsensical dialogue she has given, she realizes that “Chaos in Belleville” is in fact racist – and, defending it, is also . li.
LaChanze gets that arc right in a wonderfully comprehensive and compelling performance. Initially confident that she may continue to play an unfair system, her Wiletta becomes almost existentially confused when understanding floods in; when at last she regains her clarity and resolves not to partake of her own degeneration, it has the weight of both victory and defeat in one choice.
Then we understand that “Trouble in Mind,” its title taken from a classic blues song about suicide, is, despite its backstage comedy, a tragedy of waste – not, like lynching, the waste of what happens as much as the waste. a waste of what not.
All Black characters, but none of the whites, know this tragedy intimately. At one point, Sheldon, who spends most of “Chaos in Belleville” saying “Yes, sir” and “Thank you, sir” and cutting aimlessly at a stick, accidentally realizes that unlike the author and director of that play he actually witnessed lynching. . Cooper then gives us a bright, terrifying aria, filled with Method detail, that makes you see as if you were behind his eyes, and at the same time makes you understand how much of America’s talent has been wasted.
That includes Childress, a figure who looks in hindsight much like Wiletta. It was because she refused to license a softened ending that “Trouble in Mind” did not make the move to Broadway after its Off Broadway hit; none of her later work also made it to Broadway. But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t important – or that, in our day and age, as this striking production proves, we can’t make it important again.
Problem in Mind
Until Jan. 9 at the American Airlines Theater, Manhattan; 212-719-1300, roundabouttheatre.org. Running time: 2 hours 10 minutes.