Arts

Alice Childress Finally Gets to Make ‘Trouble’ on Broadway

Wiletta Mayer walks into the theater already knowing how things will go. Smartly dressed, attractive and middle-aged (don’t ask for a number, because “a woman that’ll tell her age will tell anything”), she is a veteran actress who’s played maids and mammies and knows how to cater to white directors and producers. You can call it “Uncle Tomming.” Or you can call it plain common sense. Either way, it’s a living.

Until enough is enough.

Alice Childress created Wiletta Mayer, the protagonist of her 1955 play, “Trouble in Mind,” to paint a realistic portrait of what it was to be Black in the theater industry. Or to be more accurate: She wanted to portray what it is to be Black in theater, because 66 years later, as the play opens on Broadway this month in a Roundabout Theater Company production, the words Childress wrote remain just as relevant.

And yet this author and play, a comedy-drama about an interracial cast rehearsing an anti-lynching play written by a white author and led by a white director, haven’t gotten their proper due in the decades since its premiere. Childress was supposed to be the first Black female playwright on Broadway, with a play critiquing the racism and misogyny of the theater industry.

Thanks to interfering white theatermakers and a Broadway unwelcoming to challenging Black art, things didn’t turn out as planned. But the content of the play, and its troubled production history, prove how rightly “Trouble in Mind” and its author should be celebrated as part of the canon.

From left: Chuck Cooper, LaChanze, Danielle Campbell and Michael Zegen in “Trouble in Mind,” which will have its long-awaited Broadway opening night this month.Credit…Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

In the play, Wiletta arrives for her part in “Chaos in Belleville” alongside a young Black actor named John; an older Black actor named Sheldon; a younger Black actress named Millie; and two white actors, Judy, a well-meaning yet naïve Yale graduate, and Bill, a neurotic character actor. The play within the play is about a Black man who dares to vote and is killed for it.

During rehearsals Wiletta tries to give the newcomer John tips on how to survive as a Black actor in the business, but her own advice fails when the white director, Al Manners, pushes her to perpetuate stereotypes.

It’s a familiar scenario, one Childress encountered herself as a young actress in the 1944 Broadway production of “Anna Lucasta.” She based Wiletta on the character actress Georgia Burke, who appeared with her in that production. Like Wiletta, Burke had also done her fair share of mammy roles, and she would later appear in the original Broadway “Porgy and Bess.”

Burke had problems with the director of “Anna Lucasta,” but Childress knew her to complain only to her fellow Black actors; when it came to white directors and producers she kept quiet for the sake of her career.

In “Trouble in Mind,” Childress wrote a version of Burke who finally had to speak up.

“Darling, don’t think. You’re great until you start thinking,” Al Manners says to Wiletta during rehearsals. That kind of condescending treatment may have been par for the course for Black theater performers. Childress, however, was uncompromising.

“She was a woman of amazing integrity,” said Kathy Perkins, Childress’s friend and the editor of a major anthology of her plays. (She is also the lighting designer for Roundabout’s production.) “She hated the saying ‘ahead of your time.’ Her thing was that people aren’t ahead of their time; they’re just choked during their time, they’re not allowed to do what they should be doing.”

Childress, at left, with actors rehearsing the premiere of “Trouble in Mind” in 1955.Credit…Billy Rose Theatre Division, The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts

It’s this integrity — or, more accurately, the times choking a great writer of integrity — that cost Childress Broadway. In an ironic echo of the play’s plot, Childress found herself at odds with the would-be director when “Trouble in Mind” was slated for its Off Broadway premiere. Unwilling to budge, she took over as co-director, along with the actress Clarice Taylor, who starred as Wiletta.

The play premiered on Nov. 5, 1955, at the Greenwich Mews Theater, and ran for 91 performances.

But that version isn’t the version we know today.

The white producers were concerned about the play’s ending, which they thought was too negative. According to Perkins, as a relatively new playwright Childress was intimidated by these experienced producers.

And then there was the rest of the cast and crew to think about. Childress was a fierce advocate for unions and workers’ rights, and feared that pulling the play would cost everyone their jobs. So she conceded, providing an ending of reconciliation and racial harmony, even though she maintained that it was unrealistic.

The New York Times praised the play as “a fresh, lively and cutting satire” — except for the ending. Childress always regretted the change, and said she’d never compromise her artistic integrity again. So when “Trouble in Mind” was optioned for Broadway with the happy ending and a new title (“So Early Monday Morning”), Childress refused. She would have been the first Black female playwright to see her work there; instead, that honor would go to Lorraine Hansberry four years later, for “A Raisin in the Sun.”

Childress, who died in 1994, never had the financial success nor popular recognition that her work merited in her lifetime. It’s unfortunate because her plays are works of merit. Many of her works, like “Florence” (1949), “Wedding Band: A Love/Hate Story in Black and White” (1966) and “Wine in the Wilderness” (1969), are confrontational without being pandering or preachy. Not simply about race, they are also about gender and class and artistry, and challenge their audiences to look at their own prejudices and misconceptions. (Theater for a New Audience is reviving “Wedding Band,” a tale of interracial love set amid the 1918 flu pandemic, Off Broadway this spring.)

And they’re clever. The meta structure of “Trouble in Mind” makes Childress’s satire especially poignant; it’s both explicitly biting and subtly searing.

Childress, at right, with James Broderick and Ruby Dee, the stars of the 1972 production of her play “Wedding Band.” Theater for a New Audience will present a revival in 2022.Credit…Jack Mitchell/Getty Images

One reason Childress is often left out of conversations about the American canon is her style. In an essay in “The Cambridge Companion to African-American Theater,” the historian and dramaturge Adrienne Macki Braconi calls Childress a “transitional” writer, unheralded because her work reflects “the conventions of dramatic realism.”

“Critics often overlook their subtle variations on the form, including such innovations as bold thematic content; assertive, complex female characters; and a focus on lower-class and middle-class blacks,” Macki Braconi wrote of Childress and the writer Eulalie Spence.

Sandra Shannon, a scholar of Black theater and emeritus professor of African-American literature at Howard University, maintained that Childress’s blend of naturalistic dialogue and social commentary put her “at the top of her game” among playwrights in the late ’40s and early ’50s. Her plays, Shannon said, “raise awareness, stop short of just getting out and marching in the streets.”

And La Vinia Delois Jennings, the author of the 1995 book “Alice Childress” and a distinguished professor in the humanities at the University of Tennessee, pointed out the “dynamism” of Childress’s works, which so often feature Black women taking agency. The stereotypical trope of the angry Black woman gets turned on its head, Jennings said, proving that anger can be “liberating — a force that brings about change.”

But for all of Childress’s dynamism, it still took over 60 years to get her work to a Broadway stage.

A 1950 portrait of Alice Childress, painted by Alice Neel, was included in a recent Metropolitan Museum of Art show.Credit…The Estate of Alice Neel and David Zwirner; The Collection of Art Berliner

Charles Randolph-Wright, who will be directing the Broadway production, said he’s been eyeing this play for the big stage for more than a decade.

On June 20, 2011, a nonprofit called Project1Voice hosted an event in which 19 theaters across the country did readings of “Trouble in Mind.” Randolph-Wright directed a Roundabout reading at the American Airlines Theater, which included André De Shields, Leslie Uggams, Bill Irwin and LaChanze, who will be starring as Wiletta in the full production at the same Broadway venue.

“I’ll never forget everyone coming up to me saying, ‘Did you rewrite this?’ and I was like, ‘No, she wrote this in 1955.’ And they said, ‘But you tweaked it —’ I said, ‘No, I didn’t touch one thing,” Randolph-Wright explained.

After all, theater insiders and outsiders are still loudly calling for improved representation more than a half-century later.

“There’s been a false sense of progress. That progress has been in fits and starts,” Shannon said. “The same issues that Childress deals with, or dealt with in the 1950s with ‘Trouble in Mind,’ have always been bubbling beneath the surface. They’ve never gone away.”

In one scene in the play, Manners says, “I want truth. What is truth? Truth is simply whatever you can bring yourself to believe, that is all. You must have integrity about your work.”

Though the statement comes from a flawed character, the sentiment is Childress all the way. Perkins said that at the end of the day, Childress wouldn’t say she was writing for white audiences or Black audiences; she only wrote for herself, and she concerned herself first and foremost with the truth, whatever form that would take.

Randolph-Wright said he thinks of John Lewis when he approaches the play. “It is ‘good trouble,’ ” he said, referring to the call to action made famous by the activist and congressman. “It agitates, it illuminates, it makes you laugh, it’s entertaining.”

But he hopes this production will only be the beginning — that audiences will learn more about Childress’s work, and that she and other Black writers will get greater recognition for their contributions to the art form. Because this moment — after Black Lives Matter and “We See You, White American Theater,” and when seven new Broadway plays this fall are by Black writers — is perfect for Childress, but also for Spence and Ed Bullins and Angelina Weld Grimké and other Black playwrights past and present.

So will change really come this time around? The version of “Trouble in Mind” that’s finally arriving on Broadway ends inconclusively, not optimistically. The ending Childress’s producers rejected back in 1955 seems right for right now.

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