Theatre Review by Howard Miller - November 18, 2021
Trouble in Mind. By Alice Childress. Directed by Charles Randolph-Wright. Set design by Arnulfo Maldonado. Costume design by Emilio Sosa. Lighting design by Kathy A. Perkins. Sound design by Dan Moses Schreier. Hair and wig design by Cookie Jordan. Makeup design by Kirk Cambridge-Del Pesche. Original Music by Nona Hendryx. Dialect coach Kate Wilson.
It is not possible to talk about Trouble in Mind, opening tonight at the American Airlines Theatre, without acknowledging the long time the play has waited to make this move since its initial Off-Broadway run in 1955. Back then, a planned transfer to Broadway was cancelled when Childress, like the character of Wiletta, would not agree to softening a rebuke of systemic racism. The playwright's refusal to bow to the demands of the producers in the 1950s echoes forward to the present time and the push for authentic equality on and off the stage. LaChanze herself is the founder of Black Theatre United, and she has dedicated her performance here to the cause of "awareness, accountability, advocacy and action."
The timeliness of this production, well directed by Charles Randolph-Wright, must not pass without notice. But Trouble in Mind is not just a theatrical soapbox or a resurrected fusty old work. It is a well-structured play, a backstage comedy-drama filled with portrayals and dialog that are often quite funny and satirical on the one hand, yet moving and assertive when the time is right.
Trouble in Mind takes place on the stage of a theater, where an integrated acting company is gathered for rehearsals of a play called "Chaos in Belleville," which, from the short scenes we see of it, is a melodrama intended to touch the hearts of the presumably liberal-leaning white audiences who will come to see it. The climactic scene of "Chaos in Belleville" is that of a lynching of a young Black man, son of the character to be played by Wiletta.
His name is Al Manners, though don't expect much in the way of "manners" from him. He is a bully who undoubtedly justifies his behavior by noting that he treats his white assistant, Eddie (Alex Mickiewicz), and the one white actress in the company, Millie (Jessica Frances Dukes), in an equally bullying way. The other white actor, a man named Bill O'Wray (played by Don Stephenson), is spared Manners' wrath and is also the only one who seems to have plenty of acting jobs available to him outside of this gig.
The rest of the company members gathered for the rehearsal are all played by top-notch actors: Danielle Campbell, Brandon Micheal Hall, and, especially, Chuck Cooper, absolutely terrific as Sheldon Forrester, a soft-spoken peacemaker who just wants to keep his career going, knowing the few other opportunities he would have otherwise. There is a good deal of bantering among these Black actors about the kinds of roles they've been compelled to play, mainly lowly servants with little intelligence. Mostly these conversations are carried out in a tone of eye-rolling humor and an acceptance that these parts at least pay the bills.
But between the director's arrogance and, most poignantly, an incident that Sheldon relates to everyone, something shifts in Wiletta. She ultimately engages in a humdinger of a blowout with the director when he refuses to even consider her suggestion that would provide her character with a little more dignity. This is undoubtedly the scene Alice Childress refused to water down, and LaChanze performs it for all the pent-up hurt and anger she can muster.
This supremely well-acted play could have ended on this note, but there is a special moment at the end after everyone else has left. Wiletta is alone on stage with the doorman, Henry (Simon Jones), who surely represents the stereotypical elderly white Broadway audience. He urges her to perform something just for him, and she does a beautiful rendition of a psalm from the Bible. Ironically, it's hard to know if Henry has heard a word, as he is "kinda deaf."