August Wilson is well remembered for noting that black theater is alive, vibrant, vital and unfunded – that commerce and a common racism have long held American theater hostage to mediocrity of taste. On Broadway last Thursday, where Alice Childress’s 1955 play “Trouble in Mind” debuted 66 years late, American theater took a backward, but timely, step toward overhauling what the plays should be. considered classics.
“Trouble in Mind,” starring LaChanze and directed by Charles Randolph-Wright, tells the story of Wiletta Mayer, a black actress rehearsing a new anti-lynching play with an interracial society, written by a white author and directed by a white director (Michael Zegen). Mayer’s unease with the play and its rehearsal brings up a damning portrayal of what it means to be black in American theater.
An off-Broadway hit in 1955, “Trouble in Mind” was to become a black female author’s debut play on Broadway, but when Childress refused to tone down her anti-racist rhetoric, the producers pulled the plug. Thursday night, “Trouble in Mind” bowed out to Broadway, intact as Childress wanted, for the first time.
“I want Alice to be in the canon, and now I know she will be,” director Randolph-Wright said. Variety the evening of the opening. âAt first I didn’t want the play to come now,â he said, noting that he had advocated for the Roundabout Theater Company, which is staging the play, to produce his work for decades. âI didn’t want him to be caught in the moment, to be seen as a reflex. But I realized that people actually listen to him differently. â¦ This coin is a love letter and a poison pill.
Almost every turn of phrase in “Trouble in Mind”, a jaw-dropping dramatic comedy, falls as prophetic and overwhelming for the short distance we’ve come since it was written. Willetta remarks that show business for actors of color is just business; “People of color are not at the theater.” She tells a young actor to say he was in the last cover of “Porgy and Bess”. No one will know the difference. The play’s director, Al Manners, tells the actors not to think of themselves as blacks, but as people. And, in the end, as Wiletta rebels against the stereotypical characters he creates, Manners proposes that the play is a lie, but the best they’ve had in years.
âIf only you knew how many real experiences I got to play this role,â LaChanze said. Variety after Thursday’s show. âMy version of Al Manners is a combination of several directors I’ve worked with. These experiences are genuine, they are real, and they are part of what it means to be in theater and to be Black in this country.
That “Trouble in Mind” is coming to Broadway this season is no accident, and it’s not just a timely opportunity for a well-deserved black playwright. Childress’s Broadway debut is the legacy of organizations like Black Theater United, which this year partnered with Roundabout Theater Company to forge a new canon by staging lesser-known black plays. BTU was also founded by LaChanze, as well as theater legends like Norm Lewis, Vanessa Williams, Kenny Leon, Brian Stokes Mitchell, and Allyson Tucker – all of whom were in attendance for the American Airlines Theater on Thursday.
âBroadway is not coming back. It’s moving forward, âsaid Williams, an eight-year Roundabout board member. Variety. âThere are no accidents here. â¦ This piece is part of an economic, social and artistic movement.
“I’ve spent most of the last few months in theaters with producers,” she continued, noting BTU’s successful adoption of the New Deal for Broadway, which sets industry-wide reforms. . “And they’re hungry for change, not just because they want to, but because they want to be known as a part of it as well.”