|TROUBLE IN MIND|
Sure, there are stage lights hanging over the rehearsal room set that immediately greets audiences when they enter the Roundabout’s American Airlines Theater for the long-overdue Broadway debut of Alice Childress’ 1955 play, “Trouble in Mind.” But it quickly becomes crystal clear that all the luminescence that Charles Randolph-Wright’s production of this neglected play needs come from its star, LaChanze.
As the ultimately frustrated African American actress Wiletta Mayer, LaChanze deftly uses her superb comic timing, unerring dramatic instincts, and even her almost supernatural singing chops to create a truly three-dimensional character that feels completely relevant (as does much of the play) seven decades after its creation. Indeed, don’t be surprised if this supernal performer adds a second Tony Award to her trophy case next spring. (Emilio Sosa’s gorgeous period costumes may also be in the running!)
As we are told in a pre-show announcement, the show was optioned for Broadway after its acclaimed Off-Broadway production. But it never arrived on “The Great White Way,” because the producers wanted Childress to make too many changes to her script – which meant that most audiences wouldn’t accept an African American woman loudly and proudly speaking her truth. (No surprise, there, right?)
Today, however, when Wiletta finally has her personal moment of reckoning and stands up to her callous, misogynistic and, yes, racist director Al Manners (Michael Zegen), it’s a different story: audiences of all races applaud, cheer and even speak out. After all, why – in any era – should such an intelligent woman have been asked to portray, without question, a loving mother who encourages her adult son to submit to a lynch mob?
One of the play’s cleverest (if none-too-subtle) touches is that Manners is just as condescending to Wiletta as he is to everyone in his orbit. That includes Wiletta’s various castmates of both races (played by the always wonderful Chuck Cooper, the consistently hilarious Jessica Frances Dukes, the earnest Brandon Micheal Hall, the super-sweet Danielle Campbell, and the properly neurotic Don Stephenson), as well as his frazzled white stage manager Eddie (an endearing Alex Mickiewicz) and even kindly 78-year-old white doorman Henry (a delightful Simon Jones).
What’s not entirely clear, though, both in Childress’ writing and Zegen’s perpetually grumpy performance, is why the misnamed Manners is such a Mr. Meanie McMeanie. On one hand, he claims to believe he’s a kind of white savior for employing these “colored” folks and putting on play that he describes (albeit misguidedly) as a cautionary tale against lynching. But it really feels that he’s only doing the play for a paycheck to cover his rising alimony costs, which drains some of the drama from the work.
Conversely, as the slightly-too-leisurely 2 ¼-hour piece reaches its almost inevitable conclusion, we sadly come to understand the various reasons why Wiletta’s acting compatriots fail to rally to her just cause -- even if it dampens the affection that we’ve built up for them. As Stephen Sondheim once wrote (about a far different century), “times is hard, times is hard.” Those words are painfully true for so many people, whether back in 1955 or now in 2021.
For my part, I would gladly follow Wiletta – and especially LaChanze – to the ends of the earth. Still, my decision and ability to do so, as Childress reminds us, is (and always was) the true definition of white privilege. That’s something to keep in mind.
By Brian Scott Lipton
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LaChanze, Michael Zegen, Chuck Cooper, Danielle Campbell, Jessica Frances Dukes, Brandon Micheal Hall, Simon Jones, Alex Mickiewicz, Don Stephenson, Peter Bradbury, Cyndii Johnson, Victoria Oliver, Reynaldo Piniella, Ray Anthony Thomas, Nita Whitaker
American Airlines Theatre
227 West 42nd Street
New York, NY 10036