By Sandi Durell . . .
This topical play about racism, Trouble in Mind, by Alice Childress, currently part of the Roundabout Theatre Company’s new season, is a play within a play. It took 66 years to reach Broadway (the play written in 1955) because the then white producers weren’t going to acquiesce to the writer’s expose and told her to tone it down. When she refused it never made its way from off Broadway’s then Greenwich Mews Theatre to Broadway. At the time, it would have been the first female African-American play produced on Broadway, but that historical happening went to Lorraine Hansberry’s “Raisin in the Sun.”
Tony Winner LaChanze makes her grand entrance from the aisle of the American Airlines Theatre to the stage where she is obviously overjoyed returning to the spotlight, the only person there is the doorman Henry (a sweet Simon Jones) who recognizes her from over 20 years ago as the beautiful singing actress on that stage (scenic design by Arnulfo Maldonado).
LaChanze plays the role of Wiletta Mayer in this satirical (?) rendering who very quickly sets the mood of how she will get through the rehearsals of this multi-racial play entitled “Chaos in Belleville,” that places blacks in all those stereotypical roles as maids and mammies, as she meets the young inexperienced John Nevins (Brandon Micheal Hall) who will play her son trying to escape a lynch mob. She quickly gives him words of wisdom on how to get through it by smiling a lot and being careful when and when not to laugh at director jokes. ”White people can’t stand unhappy Negroes…” The characters appear, one by one, to rehearse in this truthful depiction of what every black casted show was like back in the day and up to the present as theater strives to address diversity, equity and inclusion.
We watch as Wiletta moves from cautionary restraint to a boiling point, pretending to happily acquiesce to director Al Manners (Michael Zegen) requirements. Manners is followed around by his yes-man assistant Eddie Fenton (Alex Mickieweicz).
Manners is the great manipulator, an insincere phony, who lacks any degree of decency as he seeks to control his cast in all ways possible. He’s cunning and smart showing off a flirtatious manner toward young Judy (Danielle Campbell) the spoiled rich white female recently graduated from Yale School of Drama. Nevins feels quite comfortable interacting with Judy although he’s being warned by Wiletta to be careful. It’s evident by his behavior and words that Manners is a racist even though he says things like “Black, white, green or purple, I maintain there is only one race …the human race.” However, his lecture to the cast speaks differently: “The American public is not ready to see you the way you want to be seen because, one, they don’t believe it, two, they don’t want to believe it, and three, they’re convinced they’re superior…”
Millie Davis, played by the wry and witty Jessica Frances Dukes, doesn’t hold back her thoughts as a glamour queen actress but is aware of what stepping out of line might mean for getting future work. Bill O’Wray (Don Stephenson), the other white cast member, makes no bones about not wanting to dine with the black members of the cast. Sheldon Forrester (the always wonderful Chuck Cooper) feels all the pain and injustices but sucks it up as he whittles a stick relating his memory of witnessing a lynching.
Manners attempts to use his role as director as a ploy to calm Wiletta as her own rage surfaces, saying he is attempting to effect social change and she should be grateful for the work he’s given her. But her character finally boils over when he directs her to allow her son to leave home to face the lynch mob as she implores him to explain how that makes any sense and refuses to follow his direction.
LaChanze gives a powerful performance under the guiding hand of director Charles Randolph-Wright as does the entire cast. The play prosecutes the past and leaves open the questions of how Alice Childress’ brilliant statement will affect the future of theater. This season is particulary rich in plays by contemporary African-American playwrights including Antoinette Chinonye Nwandu’s “Pass Over,” Ruben Santiago-Hudson’s “Lackawanna Blues,” Douglas Lyons’ “Chicken and Biscuits,” Keenan Scott II’s “Thoughts of a Colored Man,” and Lynn Nottage’s “Clyde’s.”
The period costumes are by Emilio Sosa, with hair and wigs by Cookie Jordan. The lighting design is by Kathy A. Perkins. Original music by Nona Hendryx.
“Trouble in Mind” runs 2 hours, 10 minutes (one intermission) thru January 9, 2022 at American Airlines Theatre on West 42nd Street. www.roundabouttheatre.org
Photos: Joan Marcus