Sixty-six years ago, Alice Childress’s Trouble in Mind was scheduled to go to Broadway when the producers insisted she tone it down and add a happy ending. She refused. The production was canceled. Based on the playwright’s own experience as a young actress and that of older peer, Georgia Burke, attempting to extricate herself from mammy roles, the play has languished. Under the aegis of Roundabout Theatre Company, it rises from ashes like a phoenix alas, still relevant.
It’s 1957. We’re on stage in a Broadway house. Arnulfo Maldonado’s (Broadway debut) terrific set shows bits and pieces of productions, equipment, and weathered furniture. His sense of composition is artful. The cast for a new show enters one by one for first meeting.
Wiletta Mayer (LaChanze) is a veteran of musicals. She wants to act. In this new play, she’s also asked to sing several spirituals – beautifully were it not for wildly exaggerated direction. Doorman, Henry (Simon Jones, who can’t figure out what kind of an American accent he wants to use), remembers seeing her perform years ago. He floats in and out of scenes without definition or purpose.
Millie Davis (Jessica Frances Dukes), also a veteran, exchanges catty remarks with Wiletta lording a wealthy husband over her peer. She always gets cliché parts named for flowers like Gardenia or Magnolia while Wiletta repeatedly plays gemstone monikers like Crystal or Ruby. (A nifty way to show the caricatures to which they’re relegated.) Dukes is fine, if undistinguished. The ladies are dressed in bright, bright colors with simple lines indicative of their personalities. (Bravo Costume Designer Emilio Sosa.)
Brandon Michael Hall, Jessica Frances Dukes, Michael Zegen, LaChanze, Chuck Cooper
This is idealistic John Nevins’ first big role (Brandon Michael Hall in his solid Broadway debut). Unlike those who’ve come up the ranks, he’s theater educated. Wiletta tries to give him a crash course on what to do and say with a white director. Rule one: “They don’t want us to go to school. They want us to be natural.” Rule two: laugh at everything he says. White folks can’t stand unhappy negros.” Rule three: Lie about what you think of the play. They don’t really care.” John is nonplussed.
Also new to theater, via the family manse in Bridgeport, Connecticut and Yale, is young Judy Sears (Danielle Campbell) who naively hopes that people learn something from the play in which a southern senator’s daughter attempts to rescue a Black man from injustice. Facial expressions reveal just what the others think of this. Judy’s catnip to the divorce-embroiled director who takes her upstairs several times. We never learn what occurred. By Act Two, the young woman is dressing in a more sophisticated way and behaving as if she belongs, which might indicate one thing, yet she clearly relates to and flirts with John, throwing us off. Campbell is wonderful as an inebriated Judy.
Danielle Campbell, Michael Zegen
Sheldon Forrester is senior in the group and the only person who came from cotton fields to make a life treading the boards. The actor has sufficient reputation for a director to seek him out, yet reading excerpts, his part seems inconsequential. Forrester knows just how to get along in a bigoted world. He’s acquainted with both ladies. In the role, the estimable Chuck Cooper delivers several brief, inspired turns, including one in which the character sings an excerpt from a song he wrote and one in which he describes having seen a lynching which visibly shocks the others. A grounded manifestation.
Bill O’Wray (Don Stephenson), the only steadily working actor, is missing at the start as he’s shooting a soap opera. When we eventually meet, he’s pontificating in rehearsal as the senator. The speech is so riddled with clichés, we can only assume it’s meant to be satire. O’Wray manages both credibility and humor as his director instructs movement changes to which he responds with awkward flair. Regrettably, he has little else to do.
The show-within-the-show’s director Al Manners (Michael Zegen from The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel ), who’s only worked in film, is also making his Broadway debut. Al is swift, cocky/inflexible, smart. A word association exercise opens Wiletta to emotion. Manners, we’ll later discover, is innately, possibly unconsciously, bigoted. (About how much of the world can we say that?) “I’m prejudiced?! Get wise. There’s damn few of us who would put this on!” he exclaims. Playwright Alice Childress spends too much time on his irrelevant backstory. Zegen is low key and good. Trailing behind as his assistant and whipping boy is Eddie Fenton (Alex Mickiewicz perfectly timorous).
Michael Zegen, Alex Mickiewicz, Don Stephenson
As rehearsal progresses, Wiletta grows increasingly upset with the way she and her fellow Blacks are being portrayed. Not only is it demeaning, it’s not credible. She tries to have changes made that would ameliorate at least some humiliation and falsity. While we’re in her corner, the outrage seems a bit odd as Wiletta has read the play beforehand and knows what she’s in for. We’ve also heard the actress instruct John on behavior in order to stay employed under the circumstances, something she then ignores. These facts take some of the pith out of her stand. LaChanze inhabits Wiletta with skill but because of direction comes off with questionable credibility.
Director Charles Randolph-Wright injects subtle humor, captures sarcasm and satire. Unfortunately, he fails to show us a difference between amplified Uncle Tom characters in the play within the play and the cast as themselves. From the moment each arrives, these actors are larger than life, almost every gesture and speech exaggerated until the roiled end of the play.
Some might call Trouble in Mind before its time. The truth is it would have been extremely timely. As to contemporary pertinence, though “mammy” roles have bitten the dust, bigotry has not. The piece has writing and direction issues but clearly shines a light on the period manifesting apt and uncomfortable reflections.
Photos by Joan Marcus
Opening: Michael Zegen, Brandon Michael Hill, Jessica Frances Dukes, LaChanze, Chuck Cooper, Danielle Campbell
Roundabout Theatre Company presents
Trouble in Mind by Alice Childress
Directed by Charles Randolph Wright
Through January 9, 2022
American Airlines Theatre