Scott Klavan: Trouble in Mind
By Alice Childress, Directed by Charles Randolph-Wright
Roundabout Theatre, Broadway, November 5, 2021
Reviewed by Scott Klavan
I was in the orchestra of the American Airlines Theatre, 42nd Street in the middle of Times Square, one in a sea of masks. Waiting for the start of Roundabout Theatre’s production of Trouble In Mind, there was positive anticipation, from me, presumably others, for the re-opening of Broadway—this was the first Broadway show I’d seen in 18 months—but also anxiety, muted but palpable, and, despite our vax cards and face coverings, the threat from a potentially fatal disease was apparent on everyone’s faces, or in their eyes, anyway. Masked concealment revealed the plain Truth: there was a risk involved in seeing this play, and we were bucking it, hoping nothing bad would happen.
Trouble In Mind, by Alice Childress, was first produced Off-Broadway in 1955. Its biting story of a theater company rehearsing a play-within-a-play about race relations, bigotry and a possible lynching, with a cast of both black and white actors, was well-received. It was slated for transfer to Broadway but when the producers asked Childress, an innovative, strong-minded African-American writer, to tone down the work, change its ending and name, she refused. The play’s transfer was cancelled and despite numerous attempts to bring it uptown through the years, including several recent readings with prominent actors, it took the pained, strange, open days of 2021 for the Roundabout to give it its Broadway debut.
In Trouble’s story, mid-career African-American actress Wiletta (LaChanze) arrives for rehearsals of a new play and meets the rest of the cast: naïve collegiate newcomer John Nevins (Brandon Micheal Hall), avaricious veteran Millie (Jessica Frances Dukes) acquiescent longtime bit performer Sheldon (Chuck Cooper), all black; and youthfully arrogant white actress Judy Sears (Danielle Campbell) in her first professional show. White, authoritative director Al Manners (Michael Zegen) runs rehearsals demandingly. But the play-within-a-play causes a schism in the group. The play’s stereotyped self-effacing black characters begin to rankle on Wiletta, who longs to be a full, genuine, stage artist. Sheldon, from the south, where he witnessed racist atrocities first-hand, continues his career of capitulation to the white establishment. The division widens, resulting in an explosion of racial tensions between the cast, and finally and most meaningfully, Wiletta and Manners.
Trouble In Mind is performed in broad presentational style, and staged by Charles Randolph-Wright in standard manner: actors routinely face front and proclaim to the audience. But the level of skill and personality among the actors is so high, the directorial scheme so confident, that the show grabs and holds you with entertaining magnetism. LaChanze, a widely admired, beautiful, versatile performer, gives central character Wiletta dynamic outrage. If there’s a question, it is in her interpretation of the opening sequence, where, as Wiletta introduces novice actor John Nevins to the unfair world of black-white show business, she allows her character an impervious cynical awareness. Wiletta’s invulnerability at the top closes the path to her transformation/self-realization. But LaChanze’s electric final speeches rock the house. Chuck Cooper is a standout as Sheldon and his scenes are simultaneously warm and pathetic; silly, and—especially in his epic monologue about a traumatic childhood event—hugely tragic. Michael Zegen lacks the ‘50s macho edge the character requires, but he provides sincerity and clarity, and in his lashing back at Wiletta’s late-play accusations, defending his own white race’s humanity—a powerful surprise unlike the one-sided polemics of many of today’s plays/movies/TV—he gets his points across. Jessica Frances Dukes is bold, humorous, and touching as Millie, who, as a black actress and woman, feels thwarted in her quest for materialistic success and status. Special mention should be given to Simon Jones, the veteran of Broadway and TV/film from Brideshead Revisited to Downtown Abbey, for his simple/profound performance as Henry, the aging Irish theater doorman. Perhaps because they are played down, his scenes are among the most affecting in the show.
As has been noted in many publications, the current re-opening of Broadway features a large number of African-American-themed plays, including the upcoming Skeleton Crew, by Dominique Morisseau, with Phylicia Rashad; Clyde’s, by Lynn Nottage, now in previews; and Ruben Santiago Hudson’s autobiographical Lackawanna Blues, currently playing. While the over 60-year-old Trouble In Mind has received much notice for its amazingly contemporary take on racial equity, inclusion in the arts, and other hot subjects—some of its exchanges seem as if they were written this morning—if it stopped there, as a Social Protest piece, it would fall into a limited, minor, creative category. Where the play is great and good is its inclusion of the aspect that makes any play great and good: Metaphor. The play’s underlying theme of the infinite layers of Truth and Identity that all races—all people—grapple with unsuccessfully, shines through.
Young actress Judy mentions with new-found bitterness that we are all “puppets,” and the play portrays all the characters as unsure of themselves at their core. The forthright statements of self by both black and white people in the play sound complete, but ultimately, they are exposed as inadequate, falling short of expressing the characters’ essence, because they, as mortals, don’t fully know what it is. When director Manners is asked what we can do to fight a world stuck deep in its own prejudice, he says: “Put on a play.” But Trouble’s director Randolph-Wright smartly has Manners throw away the line, spitting it upstage; instead of an optimistic pronouncement of purpose, it seems more a vain hope; this “show” won’t help solve the problem, it’s just the best we can do. In life, we all perform in a Play-Within-A-Play, one in which our bigotry is an effort to deny our own lack of self-definition, our ignorance of the deepest levels of Life’s Truth, and the sure fact of its ending, which we all fear and are powerless to escape. (The play’s finale has Wiletta reciting the 23rd Psalm, a statement of faith against the darkness, ending with the determinedly hopeful: “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.” But the playwright certainly means it as hollowly ironic: the Psalm is accompanied by doorman Henry playing the play’s taped, canned sound effect of applause.)
More than the sharp dialogue and characterizations, more than the cutting observations of show business’s unfairness and cruelty, it is the Metaphor that shows playwright Childress—who died in 1994 without receiving mainstream acceptance—as a top-level theater artist worthy of an ongoing revival.
As I walked out of American Airlines Theatre after Trouble In Mind, relievedly removing my mask on 43rd Street for the walk through Times Square to the subway, I was hit with the unmovable realization that even when the masks come off for good, when the virus is contained, when we relax again into our predictable jobs, homes, and lives: We are unprotected.
Scott Klavan, theatre writer at Escape Into Life, is an actor, director, and playwright in New York. Scott performed on Broadway in Irena’s Vow, with Tovah Feldshuh, in regional theater, and in numerous shows Off Broadway, including two productions of The Joy Luck Club for Pan Asian Rep. His stage adaption of Raymond Carver’s short story “Cathedral” was produced off-Broadway by Theater Breaking Through Barriers (TBTB), and his play Double Murder was published in Best American Short Plays of 2006-2007. For twenty years, Scott was Script and Story Analyst for the legendary actors Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward and for companies including HBO, CAA, and Viacom. In 2015, he was featured in A Soldier’s Notes, an episode of the Web Series Small Miracles, alongside Judd Hirsch, and earned a nomination for Outstanding Actor in the LA Web Series Festival. Scott directed the one-woman show My Stubborn Tongue, written and performed by Anna Fishbeyn, off-Broadway at The New Ohio Theater and at the United Solo Festival; and directed and appeared in the solo play Canada Geese, by George Klas, in the 2016 New York International Fringe Festival. In 2019, he directed a 60-minute version of the Sondheim/Lapine classic Into the Woods, cast solely with senior actors, for Music Theatre International (MTI) and Lenox Hill Neighborhood House; the show was written up in The New York Times. He helped to develop and directed Eleanor and Alice, by Ellen Abrams, about Eleanor Roosevelt and her cousin Alice Longworth, for the Roosevelt Library and Museum in Hyde Park and the Roosevelt House in NYC. He directed Night Shadows, by Lynda Crawford, about the poet Anna Akhmatova, for the On Women Festival at Irondale Center. He is a Lifetime Acting Member of The Actors Studio and a member of the Studio’s Playwright/Directors Workshop (PDW), where his own play The Common Area, was chosen as part of the PDW’s Festival of New Works in 2019. During the pandemic, Scott figured out how to direct on Zoom! Scott teaches at the 92nd St. Y and other arts organizations.