Many years ago, I spoke to Ossie Davis about when he understudied for Sidney Poitier on stage in “A Raisin in the Sun,” and, later, took over the role of Walter Younger. Lorraine Hansberry’s play is the first written by an African American to make it to Broadway, and Davis vividly recalled how predominantly white audiences received the drama in 1959.
“They saw another play,” Davis told me. “No matter how explosive her son Walter might be, Americans knew that Momma could be depended on to make things right. And that’s not what Lorraine set out to write.” Davis went on to talk about how an audience can, in some instances, “come to own a play.”
It’s hard to see that any audience would ever come to “own” – that is, misinterpret — Alice Childress’s 1955 play, “Trouble in Mind,” which opened Thursday on Broadway at Roundabout’s American Airlines Theatre.
The play’s backstory is now famous: Producers had optioned “Trouble in Mind” to move it from Off Broadway to Broadway in 1955, but when Childress refused to make requested changes in the text, the transfer never materialized. Broadway producers bet on Hansberry but not Childress because “Trouble,” in part, is much blunter stuff. There is no comforting Momma character for white audiences to identify with or pin their hopes on. In “Raisin,” Walter is subdued by Momma. Childress delivers no such character to subdue or control or tame her explosive character, Wiletta Mayer, an actor who is fed up portraying nothing but smiling domestics named after flowers (Petunia, Violet) or stones (Ruby, Crystal).
LaChanze plays Wiletta, and under Charles Randolph-Wright’s flamboyant direction, she is not only explosively mad as hell, she is filling a void. She delivers the star turn denied to other actors of color.
Wiletta repeatedly says she wants to be an actor, and that means being cast in roles worthy of her talent. LaChanze and Randolph-Wright take her words and move that goal one step higher. In this first Broadway revival, Wiletta wants and demands to be treated as a star. It’s there in her entrance, which recalls how William Wyler introduced Barbra Streisand in the “Funny Girl” movie, and it’s there in her splashy exit, which borrows from “Rose’s Turn” in “Gypsy,” complete with razzle-dazzle lighting by Kathy A. Perkins.
Or is it the other way around? Did one or more of the “Gypsy” writers see “Trouble in Mind” Off Broadway in 1955 and lift this star turn for their Broadway show in 1959?
For any theatergoer who’s a sucker for a good showbiz story – there’s a reason so many Broadway musicals are about Broadway musicals – the dazzling bookends of “Trouble in Mind” are pure eye candy.
More indicative of Childress’ talent as a writer is a scene early in the play in which Wiletta coaches a novice actor (Brandon Michael Hall, being pliable to the extreme) on how to behave in rehearsals. She tells him to smile a lot, don’t laugh at certain jokes, laugh at others told by the director. Childress wisely makes that director (the chronically authoritative Michael Zegen, of “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel”) an equal-opportunity offender to any subordinate, regardless of race. Simon Jones and Alex Mickiewicz play two of those behind-the-scenes gofers, men who stopped fighting back long before the curtain went up.
The play within a play being rehearsed in “Trouble in Mind” dramatizes a lynching in the Deep South, and it’s no surprise that the subject is handled abysmally. The insensitivity of it all leads to Wiletta’s showdown with the director. It also inspires a monologue from the acting company’s senior member (Chuck Cooper), whose memory of the real thing exposes the utter phoniness of what’s being rehearsed on stage. Randolph-Wright’s direction and Perkins’ lighting is also a little ersatz at this extremely raw moment, unfortunately. But Cooper’s masterful delivery survives the less-than-subtle effects surrounding him.
Cooper’s character and others aren’t eager to jump on the Wiletta bandwagon. To Childress’s credit, she gives all her characters a slightly different perspective on whether to play the lynching scene as written or not. Even the director’s take on the subject makes a certain warped sense. In the end, “Trouble in Mind” delivers a universal truth: Keeping a job too often means giving up your dignity.