NEW YORK — So far this season, five plays by Black authors have opened on Broadway, each with something urgent to say. Whether despairing (“Pass Over”) or lighthearted (“Chicken & Biscuits”), broadly representative (“Thoughts of a Colored Man”) or laser-beam specific (“Lackawanna Blues”), they are talking to us now, like a newspaper come to life. Like newspapers, too, they are remade every day; when I caught up with “Thoughts of a Colored Man” recently, it had been updated with a hot take on the Kyle Rittenhouse trial.
Yet for sheer crackling timeliness, the play most of the moment is in fact the oldest: Alice Childress’ “Trouble in Mind,” which opened Thursday at the American Airlines Theater. Originally produced in 1955 in Greenwich Village, but derailed on its path to becoming the first play by a Black woman to reach Broadway — a distinction that went to Lorraine Hansberry’s “A Raisin in the Sun” four years later — it is only now getting the mainstream attention it deserves, in a Roundabout Theater Company production that does justice to its complexity.
And justice, both broadly and narrowly, is the point. What begins as a backstage satire of white cluelessness and Black ingratiation gradually broadens and darkens into something far more mysterious: a peculiarly American tale of lost opportunity.
Because Childress uses the play’s structure to express her theme, the ingratiation naturally comes first, and Charles Randolph-Wright’s lively staging leads with warmth and humor. As a mostly Black cast assembles on a perfectly period set (by Arnulfo Maldonado) to begin rehearsing an “anti-lynching” melodrama called “Chaos in Belleville,” their high-spirited chatter is often about fabricated résumés, mutual acquaintances and glorious triumphs past.
Yet for Wiletta Mayer (LaChanze) — and for us as we listen — that past is already beginning to crack open. Though she rhapsodizes to the stage doorman (Simon Jones) about a song she once performed in a show called “Brownskin Melody,” she and her colleague Millie Davis (Jessica Frances Dukes) have more often been reduced to “flower” or “jewel” roles: stereotyped Black women with names like Gardenia, Magnolia, Crystal and Opal. In her most recent job, 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 in trouble after daring to vote, the women are left, as usual, to wail and sing.
Wiletta has no question that the play “stinks.” But then so does any mainstream play she can reasonably hope to book. An idealistic young actor like John Nevins (Brandon Micheal Hall) — who has been cast, in his first Broadway outing, as Job — may feel pride on becoming a part of the theater, but Wiletta knows better.
“Colored folks ain’t in no theater,” she says. They are merely in a business.
As such, she and Millie — soon joined by Sheldon Forrester (Chuck Cooper), an old hand playing Ruby’s husband — are experts at not rocking the boat. They dress beautifully (in costumes by Emilio Sosa) and feign enthusiasm. In a hilarious yet devastating scene, Wiletta advises John that, in order to feel comfortable, white producers and directors need Black actors to be walking contradictions. They should be “natural” talents yet experienced, not too needy and yet not too cocky, have no opinions except good ones and laugh at every joke.
If this seems extreme, read about the experiences of Black theater artists today. The question they have been asking, in manifestoes and Twitter threads, is whether the systemic imbalance of power backstage is in any meaningful sense different from racism.
Some 66 years ago, that was precisely Childress’ question as well, and once the white characters appear it starts to get answered. We see that even the most powerless of them — a put-upon stage manager (Alex Mickiewicz), a Yale-trained ingénue (Danielle Campbell) and a neurotic journeyman (Don Stephenson) — have more agency in their profession than any of the Black characters do. The journeyman, though not very good, never lacks for work. (Stephenson, though, is expert.) The ingénue complains that if “Chaos in Belleville” fails she’ll have to move back to her parents’ house in Connecticut, blithely unaware that Sheldon is probably one week’s salary short of homelessness.
But it is of course the director, Al Manners (Michael Zegen), who sits at the top of the pecking order, pecking away at everyone’s nerves. An egoist whose veneer of open-mindedness is easily stripped away, he regularly explodes in nasty snits that today would be understood (and yet perhaps tolerated) as big-man harassment. Though he calls Wiletta “darling” and “my sweetheart,” his growing intransigence in response to her growing dissatisfaction is the primary source of conflict within the play.
Their fight is a fascinating knot of racial politics and dramatic theory. In Zegen’s apt take, Manners has the reptilian insouciance of a would-be Elia Kazan, bringing to the stage the new techniques of Method acting he has learned as a hack in Hollywood. Yet Manners’ demands are completely incoherent, and as Wiletta fails to satisfy him despite “justifying” and “relating to” the nonsensical dialogue she’s given, she realizes that “Chaos in Belleville” is in fact racist — and, in defending it, so is he.
LaChanze gets that arc just right in a wonderfully rangy and compelling performance. At first confident that she can continue to game an unfair system, her Wiletta becomes almost existentially confused as insight floods in; when finally she regains her clarity and resolves not to participate in her own degradation, it has the weight of both victory and defeat in one choice.
By then, we understand that “Trouble in Mind,” its title taken from a classic blues song about suicide, is, for all its backstage comedy, a tragedy of waste — not, like lynching, the waste of what happens so much as the waste of what doesn’t.
All the Black characters, but none of the white ones, know that tragedy intimately. At one point, Sheldon, who spends most of “Chaos in Belleville” saying “Yes, sir” and “Thank you, sir” and whittling pointlessly at a stick, casually remarks that unlike that play’s author and director he has actually witnessed a lynching. Cooper then gives us a brilliant, horrific 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 squandered.
That includes Childress, a figure who looks in hindsight a lot 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 success; none of her later work made it to Broadway either. But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t important — or that, in our day, as this eye-opening production demonstrates, we can’t make it important again.
‘Trouble in Mind’: Through Jan. 9 at the American Airlines Theater, Manhattan; 212-719-1300, roundabouttheatre.org. Running time: 2 hours 10 minutes.