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Theatre in Review: Trouble in Mind (Roundabout Theatre Company/American Airlines Theatre)

LaChanze. Photo: Joan Marcus

Having a bad week? Spend some time with LaChanze, a great star in the great role she has deserved for far too long. At the American Airlines Theatre, she enters, decked out in a chic purple coat, opens her arms, unleashes that radiant smile, and, for a second, all seems right with the world. She's happy to be there and so are we. She even delivers a bit of song, just to warm up the room, but this musical theatre performer is playing it straight. She is Wiletta Mayer, a Broadway character woman who has seen it all and doesn't mind telling you about it. Because it is 1957, she has plenty to say. Indeed, she could write a book about surviving in show business -- if anyone would print it.

It's the first day of rehearsal for a new Broadway play and Wiletta has many tart observations to offer. Chatting up the theatre's doorman (Simon Jones, bearded and benign in a prime bit of luxury casting) proudly advertising his 78 years, she says, "Well, I'm not gonna tell you my age. A woman that'll tell her age will tell anything." Taking it upon herself to instruct the show's male lead (Brandon Micheal Hall, making a solid Broadway debut), she suggests a program of forced cheerfulness when dealing with those in charge: "White folks can't stand unhappy Negroes...so laugh, laugh when it ain't funny." She wilts Hall's optimism by announcing that their current project "stinks," adding, by way of assurance, "Things that aggravate me always run for a long time." LaChanze handles these and more with a crackling wit that also serves as a warning of storms to come.

The play to be rehearsed is Chaos in Belleville, an earnestly liberal anti-lynching drama set in the Deep South, and its director is Al Manners, a bullying wunderkind on the lam from Hollywood, where he has previously worked with Wiletta. Manners is a handful, a showbiz smoothie who give you a kiss and calls you "dear" while ignoring the point you are trying to make. To him, actors are pieces on a game board; he is capable of physically picking up the show's ingénue (Danielle Campbell) and all but throwing her around to explain the difference between upstage and downstage. When he indulges in blatant power plays -- for example, demanding that Wiletta pick up a piece of discarded paper dropped by someone else -- he passes them off as acting exercises executed in the pursuit of truth. Clearly, Manners has found the right job to exercise his most unpleasant impulses in the guise of art.

In the first act, playwright Alice Childress sketches in her characters with pinpoint accuracy, turning a theatre company into a microcosm of racial and social inequities. The entire cast of Chaos in Belleville is subject to Manners' dictatorial ways, but the onus really falls on the Black members of the cast, especially because of the shuffling Negro stereotypes they are made to play. (Indeed, watching Michael Zegen give full expression to Manners' manipulations, it's hard not to think of Elia Kazan, who ruled Broadway when Trouble in Mind was written. A devoted envelope-pusher on stage and screen, Kazan was, only a few years earlier, responsible for the film Pinky, in which Jeanne Crain -- the whitest woman in Hollywood -- "passes," upsetting her saintly grandmother, Ethel Waters. Clearly, Childress knew whereof she wrote.)

Early on, Wiletta is prepared to deliver her standard mammy performance if that's what gets her a paycheck. But Manners, who pushes her toward something more truthful, gets more than he bargained for when she begins questioning her character's motivations. He tries to cut her off, but it is too late -- her critical faculties have been aroused and soon she is calling out the script's many falsities. In a scathingly hilarious aria, she runs the gamut of Black women character roles, delivering an encyclopedia of clichés ("Oh, Miss Wentworth, I'm so distress, I don't know what to do") in her best Hattie McDaniel manner. In a play filled with provocative speeches, it's in a class by itself, and LaChanze delivers it with electrifying virtuosity. It's an act of savage candor, an airing of truths that can't be taken back; by the time Wiletta is finished, the production's power structure has been shaken to its core.

Charles Randolph-Wright's production sometimes pushes too hard for laughs, especially during a sequence in which Manners drives the Black actors to egregiously overemote, but the cast is packed with talent. Zegen, a pillar of cluelessly self-righteous mansplaining ("I maintain there is only one race...the human race") given to quicksilver mood shifts, is exactly the forceful opposition LaChanze needs; their verbal battles make beautiful, discordant, music. Chuck Cooper amuses as a seasoned pro who doesn't read the whole play, only his lines; later, he stops the show with an account of the lynching he witnessed as a boy, culminating in a silent scream that is one of the production's most eloquent moments.

The rest of the cast is equally strong. Jessica Frances Dukes throws around plenty of amusing attitude as another seen-it-all actress: Responding to Wiletta's comment that Dukes has "played every flower in the garden," with characters named Gardenia, Magnolia, and Chrysanthemum, she fires back, "And you've done the jewels...Crystal, Pearl, Opal!" Also making solid contributions are Alex Mickiewicz as the put-upon stage manager and Don Stephenson as the star of Chaos in Belleville, bringing considerable oratorical skill to his character's bloviating defense of "moderation" in matters of race.

Arnulfo Maldonado's set, a Broadway stage strewn with old props and set pieces, is a fine, atmospheric piece of work, aided by Kathy A. Perkins' lighting design, which expertly evokes the warm incandescent look of period theatre lighting; she also provides a colorful coup de théâtre just before the final curtain. (In a lovely grace note, Perkins, a veteran designer and educator making a Broadway debut, is also editor of the standard anthology of Childress' plays.) Emilio Sosa's costume design is a delicious nod to the days when rehearsals were conducted with men in suits and women in couture. Dan Moses Schreier's sound design includes (I think) Dinah Washington's rendition of the title tune and an amusingly reflexive bit in which Mickiewicz wrestles with the sound cues in Stephenson's big scene.

But the big takeaway here is two women of the theatre. LaChanze has always been a formidable musical theatre leading lady but, as the production shows, she is also a legitimate actress of the first rank. And welcome back to Childress, a gifted writer whose career was hobbled by the hidebound racial attitudes of her era. "The American public is not ready to see you the way you want to be seen," Manners tells Wiletta, in a remark that must have cut awfully close to the bone for Childress. Indeed, it was prophetic: a Broadway production of Trouble in Mind was scrapped after she refused to soften the bluntly honest ending. This season includes a mini-Childress revival, with this production and, later, Wedding Band, to be produced by Theatre for a New Audience. Something tells me that this fine American playwright may have finally found her moment. --David Barbour

(19 November 2021)

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