It’s not easy to turn simmering rage into sharp satire—and then, in the same work of art, to look into the abyss of pain that fuels that rage. And it’s not a particularly safe career choice to plainly indict the timidity and moral failure of commercial theater while trying to negotiate a transfer to Broadway. A transfer of the first play by a Black woman writer that would ever have been on Broadway, if that writer had been willing to soften that indictment to do it.
Which is to say, Alice Childress’s Trouble in Mind is not just a play within a play where one critiques the other, but a play where the life of the play imitated the art it’s displaying, and also the other way around. It’s a melodrama within a metadrama within a metadrama, coming to Broadway in 2021 as part of the Roundabout Theatre’s “reinvigorated commitment to address equity, diversity, inclusion, and anti-racism throughout our organization,” a promise that feels maybe just a little more hollow after Childress’s blistering dissections of the limits of good intentions. And it’s also very, very funny.
The Broadway calendar in 1955 included such classic works of American realism as Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge, Tennessee Williams’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, William Inge’s Bus Stop, and the play beloved of high school English teachers everywhere, Inherit the Wind by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee. Outside of a few nameless voices of servants in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, the casts would have been entirely white. Downtown, at the Greenwich Mews, Alice Childress’s Trouble in Mind, a comedic drama with an integrated cast, set in the rehearsal room of Chaos in Belleville, a less comedic drama with an integrated cast, began its run in November. A transfer to Broadway was scheduled for 1957–when it would have joined a season that featured Eugene O’Neill’s A Moon for the Misbegotten, Williams’s Orpheus Descending, John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger–but the white producers demanded significant changes that Childress refused to make. A Raisin in the Sun, two years later, became the groundbreaker, and Trouble in Mind makes its Broadway debut in 2021, at a moment when institutional theater is, in theory anyway, having a long-overdue reckoning with its own blind spots and injustices.
The company of Trouble in Mind comprises the six-person cast of Chaos in Belleville, plus its director and stage manager and the doorman at the theater where they’re rehearsing. It’s the first day of rehearsal, fall 1957, and in Little Rock, Arkansas, a white mob is throwing rocks at Black students trying to integrate Little Rock Central High School. Wiletta Mayer (the radiant LaChanze), known as a singer in old-school musical reviews and the portrayer of an unending series of maids and mammies on film, is acting as the lead, Ruby, in this purportedly serious moral drama. Ruby is a servant, true, and it’s also true that the first bit of action we see from Belleville is between its two white characters: Carrie, the white daughter of the rich white landowner, asking permission for the Black tenant farmers to hold a barn dance. (In one of the many nuanced layers within, the actor playing the landowner is absent from the first day of rehearsal, so we see the stage manager [Alex Mickiewicz] standing for the actor playing a role in the play within the play.) It’s also true that she calls the Black farmers “darkies” but hey, at least Judy, the actress playing her (Danielle Campbell, channeling just the right amount of fairy tale heroine) objects to saying the word, and even her character objects to her father’s saying the n word. So, you know: Progress. Moral clarity. A valuable message that “people are people” and “lynching is wrong.” A message carried mainly by a soaring monologue by the rich white landowner, Renard, in which he also, of course, does “not argue with any man who believes in segregation.”
The Black characters in Chaos don’t, as far as we can see, get too many soaring monologues; Ruby in particular does an awful lot of sighing and singing spirituals while she irons, songs that LaChanze infuses with both pathos and fury. But in the rehearsal room, Wiletta is the voice of W.E.B. Du Bois’s “double consciousness,” always aware simultaneously of what she actually thinks and who she needs to be under the white gaze of the director. She knows she can’t make this play good, she can’t make the Black characters honest, she can’t even pretend that the play does any of the work that the white production team claims it’s doing–she just wants her role to contain one moment of emotional truth, and even that is an uphill battle.
The other Black members of the cast–Millie Davis, a slightly younger actress who plays the other servant part (Jessica Frances Dukes); John Nevins (Brandon Micheal Hall), a Broadway novice who plays Wiletta’s son; Sheldon Forrester (Chuck Cooper), a venerable working actor who plays Wiletta’s husband–situate themselves slightly differently with reference to the white gaze and the white establishment. John, who still has his idealism, has no intention of catering to these fools as Wiletta advises him; Sheldon is trying to do his job and keep the peace (though his patience is gradually tested, coming to a breaking point when he’s asked to whittle a stick in a corner while his son is about to be murdered by a white mob for the sin of trying to vote); Millie can’t resist an acid observation. But there’s never a moment, in Chaos or out of it, where the Black actors aren’t living in both worlds at once, even if the naive Nevins doesn’t want to believe it. You can see it in the contrast between the glowing purples and golds in Wiletta’s outfits or Millie’s tailored suits and the stilted subservience of the characters they play (Emilio Sosa’s costumes also help as a visual reminder of time and place, because rehearsal rooms haven’t changed so very much). You can see it every time director Al Manners (Michael Zegen, perfectly smug) opens his mouth. (In one of the many reminders that the theater world hasn’t changed quite enough in 65 years, Manners is all too familiar as the wunderkind boy director who’s sure his methods are too radical for his cast to understand, multiplied by the unthinking condescension he metes out in different measures to the Black actors, his “underlings” on the production team–the stage manager and the doorman–and Judy, the fresh-out-of-drama-school ingenue.) You see it in one of the funniest exchanges in the play, about how Millie has played “every flower in the garden”–characters named Magnolia, Gardenia, Chrysanthemum–and Wiletta the jewels–Crystal, Pearl, and Opal–followed by the realization that in this “good” play, Millie is Petunia and Wiletta Ruby. You can see it in the difference in tone between Millie’s or Wiletta’s wry editorializing about how to get along in this world and the mopy indignance of the middle-aged white actor Bill O’Wray that he’s just “trying to be friendly” whenever he says or does something offensive. (Don Stephenson nails the posture of someone who considers being asked to think before he speaks a major imposition.)
The beauty of the format is that Childress doesn’t have to give us much exposition, because the coruscating irony in the gap between the dynamics we see in the rehearsal room and the story being told in the play does all the work for us. And by playing the emotionally false notes of Chaos against the conventionally realist dramaturgy of the frame play, Childress and director Charles Randolph-Wright interrogate both sides of the theater world at once–the content and the machine that makes it. (This production consciously builds another frame of Childress’s own principled stand against artistic compromise in a way that feels a tiny bit self-congratulatory.)
The moment when the two worlds collapse into each other–a monologue from Sheldon when we realize how very much lynching is not a crime of the distant past, but a living memory–acts in devastating counterpunch to Wiletta’s insistence that her character’s actions in the play are a lie, an insistence that she’s willing to battle the director over even if she loses her job. Randolph-Wright and lighting designer Kathy A. Perkins highlight Sheldon’s story in a way it may not even need; Chuck Cooper packs that punch all on his own.
This fall, we’re all seeing a lot of shows that were meant to premiere sooner than they did, and marveling at their timeliness. Trouble in Mind is no exception, except that its prescience had to stretch over 60+ years instead of one. It may no longer be entirely remarkable to see a mixed-race cast onstage, and it may no longer be entirely a given that the director, playwright, stage manager, and producers would be white men even if the play is purporting to tell a story about Black lives, but replace “entirely” with “somewhat” and not so very much has changed. In particular, the nuanced questions that the play raises about representation, and about the difference between being present and being represented, between being stereotyped and being portrayed, between tokenism and institutional power, are still active and urgent debates in the field. (I refer you to the We See You W.A.T. manifesto for a comprehensive survey of what remains to be done.)