The narrative has been two-fold since Broadway returned in September, following an unprecedented 18-month shutdown: Broadway is back, but it’s also better.
These sentiments were underscored most visibly by something that had never happened before the 2021 season. The works of eight Black playwrights — alongside a community of predominantly Black directors, casts and crews — were going to be mounted across the nation’s largest theater district.
But tucked within the momentous celebration was an important question: Why hadn’t this happened yet?
While this type of question is frequently asked of the ceiling breakers, director Charles Randolph-Wright points to those who hold the answers — white counterparts and industry leaders who have historically had the power to remove the ceiling altogether for Black playwrights like Trouble in Mind’s Alice Childress.
“Ask them,” the director, writer and actor says. “Because we all did the work. We trained, we jumped through hoops. We did all the things you were supposed to do, and all too often, it did not happen.”
This experience of exclusion is among the many threads that link Randolph-Wright and Childress, two South Carolina-born artists and the creatives behind Roundabout Theater Company’s Broadway production of Trouble in Mind, which runs through Jan. 9 at the American Airlines Theatre.
When she was alive, Childress’ work never made the leap from Off-Broadway, where it debuted more than six decades ago. But the director, who first read the play while in college, says he shared her dream of telling this uncompromising story to a Broadway audience.
Ultimately, it would be not just the dream but Randolph-Wright’s unyielding tenacity — equal to that of the late playwright — that carried him through his 15-year quest to cement her in the Broadway canon and lexicon.
“Someone said that this was a lost classic,” Randolph-Wright recalls. “It wasn’t lost. Lost is when it’s in a drawer and someone doesn’t find it. It’s been there and regional theaters have performed it for years, but it’s never before gotten the acknowledgment of what a Broadway stamp does, what that pedigree does.”
Based on Childress’ own experiences with the theater, the show follows Black actress Wiletta Mayer (played by LaChanze) as she navigates the production of the anti-lynching play Chaos in Belleville alongside a mixed Black and white ensemble led by a white director. (In real life, Trouble in Mind‘s cast includes Jessica Frances Dukes, Don Stephenson, Simon Jones, Chuck Cooper, Michael Zegen, Alex Mickiewicz, Danielle Campbell and Brandon Micheal Hall alongside LaChanze — a company Randolph-Wright says “truly had the love for each other to be honest” and “brought the best to Alice’s words.”)
On stage, this show-within-a-show is pitched by its fictional white director as some newfangled look at racism in America, guaranteed to open the eyes and hearts of white audiences. But the disparaging treatment of Trouble in Mind’s fictional actors and the offensive representations they’ve been tasked with performing are a series of cuts for LaChanze’s Wiletta that eventually turn into a gaping wound.
No longer willing to settle personally or professionally, the actress demands the show’s Black company members be acknowledged in the creative process, risking her career and the entire show as she calls out the hypocrisy and racism of its white leadership.
“I directed it completely over the top because it is so wrong in how it is performed. The director in the play keeps saying to the actors, ‘I want you to be honest, I want the truth,’” Randolph-Wright says while recalling how he explained his directing approach to one of the actors. “I said, ‘You have to understand. That is his honesty, and that is his truth for Black characters to be so ridiculously stereotypical.’”
That sentiment is particularly striking after learning why Trouble in Mind hasn’t graced a Broadway stage before this fall. After opening on Off-Broadway in 1955, it was expected to debut in 1957. But white male producers asked the playwright, novelist and actress to tone down her story’s commentary about race.
Like her leading woman, Childress refused to censor herself — an act of bravery, notes Randolph-Wright — and so the dream of bringing her story, which deftly tackles racism, sexism, class and privilege in American theater, to Broadway’s stages was deferred. In this way, Trouble in Mind is a mirror for an industry the director says has given certain people “the entitlement and the privilege of saying, ‘I know better than you about who you are.’”
“They refused to put that on stage then, but people still have problems seeing that right now,” Randolph-Wright says. “I think it’s difficult because the people who control a lot of the work, I don’t think they want to put themselves up there on stage that way. So, bravo that Roundabout has placed this world on stage because it’s very accusatory of the whole system and speaks to how we change this system.”
It is all very meta, with no word changed in Childress’ script for its contemporary audience and nuanced helming from a director who says he has never had equity with his white peers. Randolph-Wright is also the first Black director LaChanze has had “in her 35-year career on Broadway in a leading role.”
“An actor was asking a question about the play being over the top, so I had every actor of color that day tell one story about a white director who told them how they should be Black,” Randolph-Wright says. “The youngest Black actor in this company, who has starred on a couple of television series and is in his 20s, even had this happen to him in the past few years.”
Trouble in Mind and this Broadway season, then, is not just a mirror. It’s a moment to splinter the past from the present for artists working at a time when, like the fictional play’s lead, “people have felt, ‘I am not doing this anymore. Some things will have to change.’”
“Who is designing the set of the house, who was putting them in the clothes, who is marketing the show? You may do this Black project, but you walk in the room and everyone who’s presenting this project — none of them look like you,” the director says of what inclusion has historically meant on Broadway. “So what has changed this season is that many people have received opportunities that they never received before.”
In Trouble in Mind, 12 performers and crew made their Broadway debut, including Black female lighting designer Kathy Perkins. She’s “worked all over the world,” including on Childress’ last show, Randolph-Wright says, but “never got her shot on Broadway before this year.” She’s now among less than a handful of Black lighting designers in the history of Broadway.
That shared experience across decades as Black artists “so used to not being seen and heard,” the director says, is why Childress’ work is so fortuitously fitting for Broadway’s current moment of self-reflection. While talks about the play’s Broadway debut with Roundabout had started years before the summer of 2020, it arrives amid a historic but deeply challenging time that could see artists’ work treated as both a pandemic test run and an indistinguishable creative mass.
“I didn’t want this play to be a knee-jerk reaction to last summer, for this to come out in the middle of all of this, on the front lines. I didn’t like the idea of, ‘Here we are again, a monolith,’” he says. “We were the canary thrown in. It was obvious to so many of us that this was the time but my fear was that if these plays failed, then they would say, ‘Well see? We tried.’”
And yet, the director concedes that Childress’ work may have debuted exactly when it needed to. Broadway seems finally ready to commit itself to the kind of creative authenticity and accountability Wiletta demands, thanks in no small part to this season’s swell of Black artists.
It’s a moment the director likens to the years following the 1918 influenza, which birthed the roaring ’20s and the Harlem Renaissance — a stark parallel that makes him wonder what theater’s renaissance will be after this pandemic. “Is this the beginning of that?” he asks.
If it is, it’s perhaps best illustrated not just by what’s happening on stage or behind the curtain but in front of it. Childress’ debut is among a collection of plays encouraging a shift in who makes up a “Broadway audience,” with Randolph-Wright calling responses to the play from Black students especially “breathtaking.” White viewers, he says, are changed, too.
“In 2019, the typical Broadway white audience would not have heard this play the same way they are hearing it now,” the director says. “Alice is getting her due at a time when people are realizing things they would not even think about before — that wasn’t even in their periphery.”
Few stars shone as brightly as Sidney Poitier.
In films like “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” and “In the Heat of the Night,” Poitier turned in powerful performances that electrified audiences. He also broke racial barriers as a leading man and top box office draw in the 1950s and 1960s, and became the first African American male to win an Oscar for best actor for his performance in “Lilies of the Field.” Though best known for his film work in front of the camera, Poitier also became a director making hits such as “Stir Crazy.” On stage, he appeared in the first production of “A Raisin in the Sun.”
Now, Poitier’s legendary life as a performer, director, and activist will be dramatized in a new Broadway play that will be written by Charles Randolph-Wright and directed by Tony Award winner Ruben Santiago-Hudson. Titled “Sidney,” the show will trace Poitier’s youth on Cat Island in the Bahamas to his rise to become one of the world’s biggest stars. The play is being mounted with the support of the Poitier family, which selected both Randolph-Wright and Santiago-Hudson to write and direct the production. “Sidney” is produced by Ron Gillyard (“Born for This”); Poitier’s daughter, filmmaker Anika Poitier; and Barry Krost. The play is adapted from Poitier’s best-selling autobiography “The Measure of a Man.”
Randolph-Wright is the author of “Blue” and the upcoming “American Prophet: Frederick Douglass In His Own Words.” He is also the director of Roundabout Theatre Company’s critically acclaimed revival of Alice Childress’ “Trouble in Mind,” which opened on Broadway this fall.
Santiago-Hudson is also on Broadway this season as the author, director and star of “Lackawanna Blues.” He previously directed the Tony-winning Broadway premiere of August Wilson’s “Jitney” and will direct the upcoming Broadway premiere of Dominique Morisseau’s “Skeleton Crew.”
In a statement, Randoph-Wright said, “The first time I met Sidney Poitier was decades ago when he saw a show I co-wrote and directed in Los Angeles. We went to dinner and I literally could not speak. He said to me, ‘If in any way I have inspired you, you have more than paid me back with what I saw this evening.’ I have held onto those words my entire career. And now to place his astonishing life on stage is the ultimate challenge and the ultimate joy. To have the trust of Mr. Poitier and his family is one of the greatest gifts I have been given – what an honor to get to dramatize the true measure of this monumental man. I look forward to the world discovering the astounding person that is behind one of our most prodigious heroes, a man who continues to inspire.”
Santiago-Hudson added, “Sir Sidney Poitier is clearly one of the greatest actors in the history of cinema. His integrity and standard of excellence set the bar for generations to come. It is an honor to be a part of celebrating the incomparable Sidney Poitier’s monumental career in this play but also the man and his extraordinary life.”
The cast and creative team will be announced at a later date, as will a production timeline.
Charles Randolph-Wright has penned a new play about the life of activist and filmmaker Sidney Poitier.
The play, entitled “Sidney,” is based on Poitier’s autobiography “The Measure of a Man” and is currently in development. Ruben Santiago-Hudson is attached to direct, and producers include Ron Gillyard, Barry Krost and Poitier’s daughter, Anika Poitier.
Randolph-Wright, who recently directed the Broadway production of “Trouble in Mind,” was selected by Poitier’s family to write the play, according to a press release. Santiago-Hudson, also chosen by the family to helm the play, recently appeared in “Lackawanna Blues” on Broadway, and is directing the upcoming Broadway production of Dominique Morisseau’s “Skeleton Crew.”
Now 94 years old, Poitier was the first Black man to win the Academy Award for Best Actor in 1963. He is also a retired diplomat, having served as the Bahamian ambassador to Japan from 1997 to 2007 and simultaneously to UNESCO from 2002 to 2007. Poitier was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 1968 and awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2009.
August Wilson is well remembered for remarking that Black theater is alive, vibrant, vital and unfunded — that commerce and a common racism had long held American theater hostage to a mediocrity of tastes. On Broadway last Thursday, where Alice Childress’ 1955 play “Trouble in Mind” opened 66 years late, American theater took an overdue, yet well-timed step toward revising what plays ought to be considered classics.
“Trouble in Mind,” starring LaChanze and directed by Charles Randolph-Wright, tells of Wiletta Mayer, a Black actress rehearsing a new anti-lynching play with an interracial company, written by a white author and led by a white director (Michael Zegen). Mayer’s discomfort with the play and its rehearsal surfaces a damning portrait of what it means to be Black in American theater.
A hit off-Broadway in 1955, “Trouble in Mind” was slated to become the first play by a Black female author on Broadway, but when Childress refused to tone down its anti-racist rhetoric, producers pulled the plug. Thursday evening, “Trouble in Mind” took its Broadway bow, untouched as Childress intended, for the first time.
“I want Alice to be in the canon, and now I know she will be,” director Randolph-Wright told Variety on opening night. “At first, I didn’t want the play to come now,” he said, noting that he’d been advocating for Roundabout Theatre Company, who mounts the play, to produce her work for decades. “I didn’t want it to be caught up in the moment, to be seen as knee-jerk. But I realized that people are actually listening to it differently. … This play is a love letter and a poison pill.”
Nearly every turn of phrase in “Trouble in Mind,” a breathtaking comedy-drama, falls as prophetic and damning for the small distance we’ve come since it was written. Willetta remarks that show business for actors of color is just a business; “colored folk ain’t in theater.” She tells a young actor to say he was in the last revival of “Porgy and Bess.” No one will know the difference. The play’s director, Al Manners, tells the actors not to think of themselves as Black, but people. And, in the end, as Wiletta rebels against the stereotypical characters he creates, Manners offers that the play is a lie, but the best one they’d get for years.
“If you only knew how many real-life experiences I’ve pulled on to play this role,” LaChanze told Variety after the show on Thursday. “My version of Al Manners is a combination of more than a few directors I’ve worked with. Those experiences are authentic, they’re real, and they’re part of what it means to make theater and be Black in this country.”
That “Trouble in Mind” makes it to Broadway this season is no accident, and it’s not simply a well-timed opportunity for a deserved Black playwright. Childress’ Broadway debut is the legacy of organizations like Black Theatre United, which this year partnered with Roundabout Theatre Company to forge a new canon by staging lesser-known Black plays. BTU was also founded by LaChanze, as well as theater legends like Norm Lewis, Vanessa Williams, Kenny Leon, Brian Stokes Mitchell and Allyson Tucker — all of whom were in the audience at the American Airlines Theatre on Thursday.
“Broadway isn’t coming back. It’s coming forward,” Williams, who’s been a Roundabout board member for eight years, told Variety. “There are no accidents here. … This play is part of an economic, social and artistic movement.”
“I’ve spent many of the past few months in rooms with producers,” she continued, noting BTU’s successful adoption of the New Deal for Broadway, which establishes industry-wide reforms. “And they’re eager for change, not just because they want it, but because they want to be known as a part of it, too.”
Roundabout Theatre Company (Todd Haimes, Artistic Director/CEO) is pleased to share a first look portrait of the cast of the Broadway premiere of Trouble in Mind by Alice Childress.
Starring Tony & Emmy Award-winner LaChanze and directed by Charles Randolph-Wright.
The photo was shot on stage at the American Airlines Theatre (227 West 42nd Street) where the show will begin previews on Friday, October 29 ahead of an opening set for Thursday, November 18, 2021. This is a limited engagement through Sunday, January 9, 2022.
Trouble in Mind stars LaChanze as “Wiletta”, Michael Zegen as “Al Manners”, Chuck Cooper as “Sheldon Forrester”, Danielle Campbell as “Judy Sears”, Jessica Frances Dukes as “Millie Davis”, Brandon Micheal Hall as “John Nevins”, Simon Jones as “Henry”, Alex Mickiewicz as “Eddie Fenton” and Don Stephenson as “Bill O’Wray”.
The design team includes Arnulfo Maldonado (Sets), Emilio Sosa (Costumes), Kathy A. Perkins (Lights),
Dan Moses Schreier (Sound), Cookie Jordan (Hair & Wigs) and Nona Hendryx (Original Music).
Roundabout’s production of Trouble in Mind comes to Broadway following two recent development readings with director Charles Randolph-Wright. Roundabout audiences will know the work of playwright Alice Childress from the recent online reading of her play, Wine in the Wilderness, as part of Roundabout’s multi-year The Refocus Project, presented in association with Black Theatre United, to spotlight twentieth-century Black plays and their playwrights.
Following an experienced Black stage actress through rehearsals of a major Broadway production, Alice Childress’s wry and moving look at racism, identity, and ego in the world of New York theatre opened to acclaim Off-Broadway in 1955. At the forefront of both the Civil Rights and feminist movements, the prescient Trouble in Mind was announced to move to Broadway in 1957…in a production that never came to be
Roundabout is thrilled to welcome back many of these actors to their stages including Michael Zegen who made his Roundabout debut in Bad Jews at its Underground production in 2012, which then transferred to the Laura Pels in 2013 and Tony Award-winner Chuck Cooper who made his Roundabout debut in the 2016 production of The Cherry Orchard at American Airlines Theatre. Additionally, Alex Mickiewicz was last seen at Roundabout in The Last Match (2017) and Simon Jones and Don Stephenson were both last seen at Roundabout in Death Takes a Holiday (2011).
LaChanze is a founding member of Black Theatre United; she returns to Broadway following A Christmas Carol (2019) and Summer: The Donna Summer Musical (2018), for which she received a Tony Award nomination for Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Musical.
Preview performances of Trouble in Mind will play Tuesday through Saturday evening at 8:00 PM with Wednesday and Saturday matinees at 2:00 PM and Sunday matinees at 3:00 PM. Regular performances after opening night will play Tuesday and Thursday evening at 7:00 PM, and Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday evening at 8:00 PM, with Wednesday and Saturday matinees at 2:00 PM and Sunday matinees at 3:00 PM.
LaChanze (Wiletta – she/her/them/they) is an award-winning actress who brings an exhilarating and electrifying presence to any stage she touches. Blessed with a powerful mezzo-soprano singing voice and a commanding presence, she consistently receives high praises from fans, peers and the industry at-large. Armed with the gift for dramatic storytelling, a sultry vocal dexterity, and bringing complex female heroines to life, audiences sit up and take notice of LaChanze—whether in a hit Broadway production, television show, film or on concert stages.
Her most recent TV credits include a recurring as Anne in NBC’s “The Blacklist” opposite James Spader and in Amazon Prime’s “The Underground Railroad,” which was released earlier this year. She recurred in the CBS All Access hit show “The Good Fight” and appeared in the award-winning HBO special “The Night Of,” “Person Of Interest,” “Law & Order: SVU,” “One Life To Live,” “Lucy,” “Sex And The City,” “The Cosby Show,” “The Cosby Mysteries” and “New York Undercover.”
On the film side, she stars in writer/director Marishka Phillips’ suspense- filled film Melinda. She appeared in the award-winning movie The Help sharing the screen with legendary actress Cicely Tyson (SAG Award for Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture). Other films include former President Obama film picks for 2019 Diane, A Bitter Pill, Side Effects, For Love Or Money, Leap Of Faith, My New Gun, and the Disney animated feature film Hercules. LaChanze stepped onto stage 28 Broadway seasons ago, giving the original production of Once On This Island its beating and unforgettable heart, creating the role of lovelorn peasant girl Ti Moune. She won her first Tony Award for giving a voice to Celie, the unlikely heroine of Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, the musical’s original staging.
Shortly after, she captured an Emmy Award for her riveting performance in the award-winning PBS special Handel’s Messiah Rocks: A Joyful Noise. She starred in playwright Jack Thorne’s A Christmas Carol as the Ghost of Christmas Present/Mrs. Fezziwig. Prior, she originated Augusta’s role in two-time Pulitzer Prize winner Lynn Nottage’s A Secret Life of Bees, for which she landed an AUDELCO Award for Leading Actress in a Musical. She gave a spellbinding performance in the high voltage Broadway’s Summer The Donna Summer Musical.
In creating Donna Summers’ nostalgia, she landed nominations for the 2018 Tony Award nomination for Leading Actress in a Musical, 2018 Drama Desk Award Outstanding Actress in a Musical and 2018 Drama League Award for Distinguished Performance Award. Other Broadway credits include If/Then, Ragtime, Company, and Uptown It’s Hot. Some of her Off-Broadway credits include The Bubbly Black Girl Sheds Her Chameleon Skin (Drama Desk nomination), Dessa Rose (Obie Award), Inked Baby, Spunk and From The Mississippi Delta. LaChanze brings her original, one-of-a-kind, one-woman show, Feeling Good, to popular venues touching the hearts of audiences worldwide. This electric and highly praised tour mixes the perfect blend of emotional intensity with sultry vocals. Fans willing to take the ride and feel every pain, joy, and excitement LaChanze feels all through her life’s autobiographical journey with music and words.
Wiletta Mayer walks into the theater already knowing how things will go. Smartly dressed, attractive and middle-aged (don’t ask for a number, because “a woman that’ll tell her age will tell anything”), she is a veteran actress who has played maids and mammies and knows how to cater to white directors and producers. You can call it “Uncle Tomming.” Or you can call it plain common sense. Either way, it’s a living.
Until enough is enough.
Alice Childress created Wiletta Mayer, the protagonist of her 1955 play, “Trouble in Mind,” to paint a realistic portrait of what it was to be Black in the theater industry. Or to be more accurate: She wanted to portray what it is to be Black in theater, because 66 years later, as the play opens on Broadway this month in a Roundabout Theater Company production, the words Childress wrote remain just as relevant.
And yet this author and play, a comedy-drama about an interracial cast rehearsing an anti-lynching play written by a white author and led by a white director, haven’t gotten their proper due in the decades since its premiere. Childress was supposed to be the first Black female playwright on Broadway, with a play critiquing the racism and misogyny of the theater industry.
Thanks to interfering white theatermakers and a Broadway unwelcoming to challenging Black art, things didn’t turn out as planned. But the content of the play, and its troubled production history, prove how rightly “Trouble in Mind” and its author should be celebrated as part of the canon.
In the play, Wiletta arrives for her part in “Chaos in Belleville” alongside a young Black actor named John; an older Black actor named Sheldon; a younger Black actress named Millie; and two white actors, Judy, a well-meaning yet naive Yale graduate, and Bill, a neurotic character actor. The play within the play is about a Black man who dares to vote and is killed for it.
During rehearsals, Wiletta tries to give newcomer John tips on how to survive as a Black actor in the business, but her own advice fails when the white director, Al Manners, pushes her to perpetuate stereotypes.
It’s a familiar scenario, one Childress encountered herself as a young actress in the 1944 Broadway production of “Anna Lucasta.” She based Wiletta on character actress Georgia Burke, who appeared with her in that production. Like Wiletta, Burke had also done her fair share of mammy roles, and she would later appear in the original Broadway “Porgy and Bess.”
Burke had problems with the director of “Anna Lucasta,” but Childress knew her to complain only to her fellow Black actors; when it came to white directors and producers, she kept quiet for the sake of her career.
In “Trouble in Mind,” Childress wrote a version of Burke who finally had to speak up.
“Darling, don’t think. You’re great until you start thinking,” Al Manners says to Wiletta during rehearsals. That kind of condescending treatment may have been par for the course for Black theater performers. Childress, however, was uncompromising.
“She was a woman of amazing integrity,” said Kathy Perkins, Childress’ friend and the editor of a major anthology of her plays. (She is also the lighting designer for Roundabout’s production.) “She hated the saying ‘ahead of your time.’ Her thing was that people aren’t ahead of their time; they’re just choked during their time, they’re not allowed to do what they should be doing.”
It’s this integrity — or, more accurately, the times choking a great writer of integrity — that cost Childress Broadway. In an ironic echo of the play’s plot, Childress found herself at odds with the would-be director when “Trouble in Mind” was slated for its off-Broadway premiere. Unwilling to budge, she took over as co-director, along with actress Clarice Taylor, who starred as Wiletta.
The play premiered Nov. 5, 1955, at Greenwich Mews Theater and ran for 91 performances.
But that version isn’t the version we know today.
The white producers were concerned about the play’s ending, which they thought was too negative. According to Perkins, as a relatively new playwright, Childress was intimidated by these experienced producers.
And then there was the rest of the cast and crew to think about. Childress was a fierce advocate for unions and workers’ rights, and feared that pulling the play would cost everyone their jobs. So she conceded, providing an ending of reconciliation and racial harmony, even though she maintained that it was unrealistic.
The New York Times praised the play as “a fresh, lively and cutting satire” — except for the ending. Childress always regretted the change, and said she’d never compromise her artistic integrity again. So when “Trouble in Mind” was optioned for Broadway with the happy ending and a new title (“So Early Monday Morning”), Childress refused. She would have been the first Black female playwright to see her work there; instead, that honor would go to Lorraine Hansberry four years later, for “A Raisin in the Sun.”
Childress, who died in 1994, never had the financial success nor popular recognition that her work merited in her lifetime. It’s unfortunate because her plays are works of merit.
Many of her works — such as “Florence” (1949), “Wedding Band: A Love/Hate Story in Black and White” (1966) and “Wine in the Wilderness” (1969) — are confrontational without being pandering or preachy. Not simply about race, they are also about gender and class and artistry, and challenge their audiences to look at their own prejudices and misconceptions. (Theater for a New Audience is reviving “Wedding Band,” a tale of interracial love set amid the 1918 flu pandemic, off-Broadway this spring.)
And they’re clever. The meta structure of “Trouble in Mind” makes Childress’ satire especially poignant; it’s both explicitly biting and subtly searing.
One reason Childress is often left out of conversations about the American canon is her style. In an essay in “The Cambridge Companion to African-American Theater,” historian and dramaturge Adrienne Macki Braconi calls Childress a “transitional” writer, unheralded because her work reflects “the conventions of dramatic realism.”
“Critics often overlook their subtle variations on the form, including such innovations as bold thematic content; assertive, complex female characters; and a focus on lower-class and middle-class blacks,” Macki Braconi wrote of Childress and writer Eulalie Spence.
Sandra Shannon, a scholar of Black theater and emeritus professor of African American literature at Howard University, maintained that Childress’ blend of naturalistic dialogue and social commentary put her “at the top of her game” among playwrights in the late ’40s and early ’50s. Her plays, Shannon said, “raise awareness, stop short of just getting out and marching in the streets.”
And La Vinia Delois Jennings, author of the 1995 book “Alice Childress” and a distinguished professor in the humanities at the University of Tennessee, pointed out the “dynamism” of Childress’ works, which so often feature Black women taking agency. The stereotypical trope of the angry Black woman gets turned on its head, Jennings said, proving that anger can be “liberating — a force that brings about change.”
But for all of Childress’ dynamism, it still took over 60 years to get her work to a Broadway stage.
Charles Randolph-Wright, who will be directing the Broadway production, said he has been eyeing this play for the big stage for more than a decade.
On June 20, 2011, a nonprofit called Project1Voice hosted an event in which 19 theaters across the country did readings of “Trouble in Mind.” Randolph-Wright directed a Roundabout reading at the American Airlines Theater, which included André De Shields, Leslie Uggams, Bill Irwin and LaChanze, who will be starring as Wiletta in the full production at the same Broadway venue.
“I’ll never forget everyone coming up to me saying, ‘Did you rewrite this?’ and I was like, ‘No, she wrote this in 1955.’ And they said, ‘But you tweaked it —’ I said, ‘No, I didn’t touch one thing,” Randolph-Wright explained.
After all, theater insiders and outsiders are still loudly calling for improved representation more than a half-century later.
“There’s been a false sense of progress. That progress has been in fits and starts,” Shannon said. “The same issues that Childress deals with, or dealt with in the 1950s with ‘Trouble in Mind,’ have always been bubbling beneath the surface. They’ve never gone away.”
In one scene in the play, Manners says, “I want truth. What is truth? Truth is simply whatever you can bring yourself to believe, that is all. You must have integrity about your work.”
Although the statement comes from a flawed character, the sentiment is Childress all the way. Perkins said that at the end of the day, Childress wouldn’t say she was writing for white audiences or Black audiences; she wrote for only herself, and she concerned herself first and foremost with the truth, whatever form that would take.
Randolph-Wright said he thinks of the late John Lewis when he approaches the play. “It is ‘good trouble,’” he said, referring to the call to action made famous by the activist and congressman. “It agitates, it illuminates, it makes you laugh, it’s entertaining.”
But he hopes this production will only be the beginning — that audiences will learn more about Childress’ work, and that she and other Black writers will get greater recognition for their contributions to the art form. Because this moment — after Black Lives Matter and “We See You, White American Theater,” and when seven new Broadway plays this fall are by Black writers — is perfect for Childress, but also for Spence and Ed Bullins and Angelina Weld Grimké and other Black playwrights past and present.
So will change really come this time around? The version of “Trouble in Mind” that’s finally arriving on Broadway ends inconclusively, not optimistically. The ending that Childress’ producers rejected back in 1955 seems right for right now.
Now as the country undergoes another racial reckoning, Childress’s play is finally getting its moment. Today, seemingly better-reconciled to our past, we are more able to grapple with American racism. This comes even as the same racial violence and working conditions that troubled Childress persist today.
Childress began her career as an actor, writer, director and board member with the American Negro Theatre (ANT). The ANT set up shop in a basement in New York’s Schomburg Center and served as a training ground for many accomplished Black actors, Childress among them. Childress appeared in the ANT’s production of Philip Yordan’s “Anna Lucasta” in 1944. The play, originally written for a White cast, moved from Harlem to Broadway and also featured Hilda Simms, Frederick O’Neal, Earle Hyman and Canada Lee.
Kathy Perkins, lighting designer of the 2021 Roundabout Theatre’s production of “Trouble in Mind,” who also edited a collection of Childress’s plays, recalled, “When I interviewed Sidney Poitier, he said he saw Childress act before he met her, and he was just blown away by her acting skills. Everybody who saw her perform said she was such an amazing actress.”
Yet Childress’s acting career was derailed by the color codes that governed casting. As Perkins explained, “She was too light.” Casting for many shows required that an African American actor appear prototypically Black. At the same time, segregation depended on Black people not being able to play White roles. Childress found herself in a racial no-woman’s-land.
This reality taught Childress about the costs of making theater and inspired her to write “Trouble in Mind” with an eye toward showcasing the racism in the theater.
A play within a play, Childress’s comedy depicts characters rehearsing a drama called “Chaos in Belleville” about a lynching that takes place in a White southern community. The outside world seeps into the rehearsal room through direct references to national events, school desegregation and the Montgomery Bus Boycott. The main character, Wiletta Mayer, a veteran actress, clashes with the director, Al Manners, over how to interpret her role as a sharecropper’s wife. As written, Mayer’s role depicts a stereotypical self-sacrificing and submissive Black mother.
After casting the play and rehearsing for weeks, the producers of the 1955 production threatened to cancel the show if Childress did not provide a happy ending. The original and published version of the play ends with Mayer and Manners in a standoff that threatens to doom the show. Mayer refuses to play the part as written and Manners, frustrated, ends rehearsal early and sends the cast home. Childress acceded to the demand, and revised the script to conclude with a reconciliation between the characters. The off-Broadway production changed Mayer’s act of self-determination to one of reconciliation.
The production of “Trouble in Mind” opened on Nov. 4, 1955, at the Greenwich Mews Theatre, located in the basement of the Village Presbyterian Church. With Clarice Taylor, Childress directed the play, which ran for 91 performances. Although it received rave reviews and garnered interest from Broadway producer Edward Eliscu, Childress felt regret.
She recalled in an interview with theater historian James Hatch, “They had me rewrite for two years until I couldn’t recognize the play one way or the other. … Then after one person dropped it, I think another person dropped it and then it just sat there and I felt like I didn’t want to do it anymore.”
Childress reinstated the original ending to help restore her vision — but at the cost of reaching Broadway. The play was abandoned as a poor commercial risk.
Broadway would not feature a play written by a Black woman until Lorraine Hansberry’s “A Raisin in the Sun” opened at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre in 1959.
But in 2021, “Trouble in Mind” is getting its moment on Broadway. The theater world’s issues with race have not abated in the 66 years since the play debuted. Black playwrights have repeatedly staged plays about their struggle to make innovative and commercially viable art.
George C. Wolf’s “Colored Museum,” which premiered in 1986, critiqued formulaic depictions of Black people onstage with a scene entitled, “The Last Mama-on-the-Couch Play.” Brenden Jacobs-Jenkins’s, “An Octoroon,” presented by Soho Rep in 2014, begins with a Black playwright delivering a monologue about expectations for race onstage.
Before the coronavirus pandemic shutdown in 2020, Jackie Sibblies Drury’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “Fairview” also displayed the tension between artists’ renderings of Black people onstage and audiences’ expectations. The first act shows a Black family in a comedic kitchen-sink drama. Turning everything on its head, the second act presents an absurdist interaction between an onstage audience and the Black family. The Black family replays the drama, now with the onstage audience intervening, critiquing, disrupting and revising the show. In the final scene, “Fairview” breaks the fourth wall and asks White members of the audience to acknowledge the role viewers play in what unfolds onstage. The interaction between the actors and the audience encourages spectators to rethink how we see Black performers.
After the murder of George Floyd and the death of Breonna Taylor, theater artists joined in the global call for racial justice. A coalition of theater makers who are Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) united under the name, We See You White American Theatre (WSYWAT), and wrote a manifesto in 2020 that sought more accountability in the composition of boards, audience cultivation and season planning.
They forced the theater world to respond. As theaters reopened this fall, Broadway boasts seven plays by Black people, including “Trouble in Mind.”
It will be telling how audiences engage with the deep irony of Childress’s play. The racial violence that framed the 1955 production still exists and American theater remains challenged by questions of inclusion. Yet as lighting designer Perkins notes, “We have a different audience today than they did in the ’50s. It’s a more diverse audience.” While the ending of Childress’s play rendered it a poor commercial risk in 1955, producers seem to have calculated that the risk of not seeing Black people onstage in 2021 is much greater.
- Charles Randolph-Wright on the Heroes Who Gave Him Permission to Dream
- New musical honors Frederick Douglass’ life and writings
- In beguiling ‘American Prophet,’ Frederick Douglass lets freedom sing
- Frederick Douglass gets the Hamilton treatment with new musical
- Photos & Video: See Cornelius Smith Jr. & More in Rehearsals for the World Premiere of AMERICAN PROPHET at Arena Stage