Before the play, there is an announcement: when Alice Childress’ Trouble in Mind premiered in 1955, there was talk of a Broadway transfer. But Childress was unwilling to rewrite the script to accommodate her white producers, and the transfer never happened. (The announcement fails to mention that, in the original, off-Broadway production, she did in fact rewrite the ending.) Now, we hear, Trouble in Mind is being presented at the American Airlines Theater as Childress intended. This was followed by a burst of applause—a little self-congratulatory, I thought, the audience celebrating its own liberality. Sure, the play can go on now, over sixty years later and no longer a threat to a white audience. Is that really an act of courage?
Trouble in Mind is a backstage drama about the rehearsal of a “colored show,” meaning a play about race that centers on heroic, white anti-racists. Wiletta Mayer (LaChanze) plays the mother of a child who has gotten mixed up in the struggle for voting rights and is ultimately asked to send him out to confront the mob that will kill him. At first, like the others, Wiletta accepts both her diminished role and her character’s inexplicable motives. She even teaches the new actor (Brandon Michael Hall) to hide his education (“They don’t like us to go to school”) and his desperation (“Management hates folks who need jobs”).
Eventually, however, Wiletta can no longer accept the demeaning work, asking, “Why we sendin’ him out into the teeth of a lynch mob? I’m his mother and I’m sendin’ him to his death. This is a lie.” She even proposes the unthinkable: “Wouldn’t it be nice if the mother could say, ‘Son, you right! I don’t want to send you outta here but I don’t know what to do.’” Needless to say, her white director (Michael Zegen) cannot abide such humanization. “Get wise,” he tells her, “there’s damned few of us interested in putting on a colored show at all, much less one that’s going to say anything.” Thus, it’s the white actors who must do the saying; the Black actors are there to suffer, sacrifice, and provoke tears.
Trenchant in the ’fifties, no doubt, but unfortunately, trenchant still today. Trouble in Mind should be outdated, but it isn’t, and therefore it serves as a reminder of how slight our progress has been. Indeed, in most of its advertising, the Roundabout Theatre is pairing it with their other fall production, the musical Caroline, or Change. That’s the one about a white boy who realizes he can’t be friends with Caroline, his Black maid. It is possible to read this production as a critique of the other and difficult to imagine how a single artistic director could have understood and approved both. It is, frankly, embarrassing.
Still, Trouble in Mind is superb, a tragic reminder of all the great performances that never were. Imagine, for example, what Hattie McDaniel, Butterfly McQueen, or Louise Beavers could have done with better material. The cast is strong, and I was particularly moved by Chuck Cooper, who plays Sheldon Forrester, an agreeable, older actor whose appeasement of management is provided greater context when the director says, offhand, that none of them have witnessed a lynching, “thank God.” “I seen one,” Sheldon replies, and the speech that follows is absolutely wrenching, a reminder that the older generation’s conservatism isn’t necessarily a result of cowardice but sometimes of a longer historical memory.
So yes, ultimately, producing Trouble in Mind is an act of courage in the context of a Broadway season headlined by Caroline, or Change and the continued success of To Kill a Mockingbird. But the fact that this is true should fill us all with shame.
Trouble in Mind runs through January 9th at the American Airlines Theatre. 227 W. 42nd Street New York, NY. 2 hours 10 minutes. One intermission. Photograph by Joan Marcus.