After its acclaimed Off-Broadway opening in 1955, Alice Childress’s Obie-winning play Trouble in Mind was scheduled to transfer to Broadway in 1957, with the stipulation of the show’s white producers that she make some changes in the script to soften the theme of racism in the theater. She refused, and the production was cancelled – until now. The long-awaited Broadway premiere of the pioneering playwright’s prescient look at the racial and gender-based struggles of one accomplished Black actress of the stage and screen has arrived at last, more than six decades later, in a long overdue but eminently timely limited engagement with Roundabout Theatre Company.
Set at a Broadway theater in the 1950s (here specifically in 1957, the year Trouble in Mind was supposed to have its originally planned Broadway run), the self-referencing two-act play follows the rehearsals for an important new anti-lynching “colored show” starring Wiletta Mayer, under the dictatorial and condescending direction of the white Al Manners. The mood shifts from sardonic comedy to explosive drama, as she and her castmates consider how best to deal with his controlling egomaniacal behavior and how to address the issues they have with the show’s narrative and its portrayal of the Black characters, while still being able to work in a white-dominated industry.
At first willing to yield to his power and privilege to maintain her job – and advising the others to do the same – she ultimately speaks out against the unrealistic characterizations and rails against the offensive stereotypes Black actors have traditionally had to play. But will her honest emotional outburst cost her the role and her future career?
Under the masterful direction of Charles Randolph-Wright, LaChanze turns in a powerhouse performance as the increasingly empowered Wiletta. Her attitude switches from joking and deferential to righteously exasperated and angry, and then uplifted by both her cross-racial bond with the theater’s hard-of hearing and forgetful, but kind, supportive, and calming elderly Irish doorman Henry (beautifully played by Simon Jones), who brings the ideal of unbiased humanity to the story, and by the words of the Bible, in praise of unity, which she recites for him on her beloved stage.
Michael Zegen delivers all the requisite vitriol as the insulting and authoritative Al Manners (who has none), undermining the talents and contributions of the actors and staff, tersely snapping at everyone who works with him, both Black and white, and ultimately revealing himself to be “a prejudiced racist” who bristles at the comparison of the Black son in the play he’s directing to his own.
The featured Black cast of the play-within-the-play is equally compelling. Jessica Frances Dukes appears as the funny and competitive Millie Davis, Brandon Micheal Hall as the newcomer John Nevins, and Chuck Cooper as veteran actor Sheldon Forrester (whose disclosure that, as a child, he was witness to an actual lynching, is one of the most devastating and impactful moments of the play) – all convincingly equivocating in their desire to keep their jobs by not making waves and deferring to the authority of Manners.
Danielle Campbell as Judy Sears – the conventional image of a pretty white ingenue and Yale graduate from a wealthy Connecticut suburb, who espouses a Northern liberal belief in equality for all and acceptance of everyone – tries her best to bring the conflicted company together (while also having experienced the verbal abuse and sly sexual advances of Manners). Rounding out the excellent cast are Alex Mickiewicz as Eddie Fenton, a white assistant who also incurs the consistent wrath of the belittling boss, and Don Stephenson as Bill O’Wray, a white actor who prefers to keep his distance from the others.
Arnulfo Maldonado’s simple set and lighting by Kathy A. Perkins effectively convey the look of a rehearsal stage, and costumes by Emilio Sosa and hair and wigs by Cookie Jordan recreate the mid-century style. Sound by Dan Moses Schreier and original music by Nona Hendryx also contribute well to the design, enhancing rather than distracting from the superb acting and critical message – one that still resonates 66 years later.
Running Time: Approximately two hours and 10 minutes, including an intermission.
Trouble in Mind plays through Sunday, January 9, 2022, at Roundabout Theatre Company, performing at American Airlines Theatre, 227 West 42nd Street, NYC. For tickets (priced at $39-250), go online. Roundabout requires proof of full COVID-19 vaccination with an FDA- or WHO-authorized vaccine for audiences, artists, and staff. For those who are unvaccinated due to a disability or religious belief, proof of a recent negative COVID-19 test is required.