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  • Jonathan Kalb

Lost Connections

No production this fall had me more excited than Trouble in Mind, a pinnacle of the Black American canon that I’ve never seen. The play is the stuff of theater lore because of its cancellation 64 years ago on Broadway; in 1957 the author Alice Childress famously refused to soften its ending to please her producers. Strangely enough, I’ve now attended the long-delayed Broadway premiere—produced by the Roundabout Theatre to much fanfare amid an epochal national reckoning on racial justice—and yet feel I still haven’t seen the play.

Trouble in Mind is a backstage story. Four Black actors and two white ones arrive at rehearsals for the Broadway production of a new play called Chaos in Belleville with “an anti-lynch theme.” It’s about a young Black man who dares to vote in the deep South and pays for it with his life. The lead actress Wiletta Mayer has no illusions about this play—“it stinks, ain’t nothin’ atall”—but the actors need the work and try their best to please the smug martinet of a (white) director, Al Manners, who invested in the play and thinks it’s genius.

We hear the Black actors grumbling about their powerlessness in the industry, the paucity of fully dimensional Black roles, the demoralizing persistence of stereotypes, but they mostly keep it to themselves. The delicate conciliatory equilibrium is destroyed when Wiletta can’t stomach the play’s lies and distortions anymore and calls out Manners for his obliviousness and unacknowledged racism.

I remember first reading Trouble in Mind decades ago and wondering how it would work in performance, because it contains two different actions artfully braided together. One is the slow-building showdown between Wiletta and Manners, which tracks with her gradual political awakening and climaxes with her blast at white liberal hypocrisy. The other is a subtler story of disharmony among the actors that carries much of the play’s nuance.

The white actors and younger Black one, John, are all schooled in the American Method technique and its jargon (“justification,” “motivation”), whereas the older Blacks—Wiletta, Millie and Sheldon—have been performing just fine without formulas or jargon their whole lives. Manners, a smug and insecure creature of Hollywood, wields the newfangled “methods” (such as emotional recall and using insult to get an emotional rise) merely as tools for browbeating and getting his way, and Wiletta sees through him. Yet he succeeds in turning the actors against one another anyway by making some feel smarter than others. John, we’re told in a stage direction, has grown “ashamed” of Wiletta and Sheldon in Act 2. This division lingers at the end of the play, to the benefit, I can imagine, of all those who will go on belittling, stereotyping, and sidelining Black artists in the theater.

My impression of Charles Randolph-Wright’s Roundabout production is that it brilliantly clarifies and dignifies the first of these actions—the showdown on racist attitudes—but neglects and obscures the other story of actor misconnections. The result is that it’s often hard to know what’s going on.

LaChanze is excellent as Wiletta Mayer. A musical theater dynamo with a rich, earthy voice and broad emotional range, she brings warmth, authority and real star power to a role that calls for an aging and vulnerable star to sacrifice everything for a moral principle. Randolph-Wright knows how to frame LaChanze’s sort of zinger bon mots and soulful singing turns so that we thoroughly enjoy Wiletta and look forward to her defiance of Manners. Chuck Cooper is her perfect complement as Sheldon, a jovial journeyman actor who seems a consummate go-along-to-get-along guy until he shocks everyone late in the play by describing an actual lynching he witnessed as a boy. Cooper delivers this speech with such heart, gravity, and desolation that it rises to a transcendent indignation parallel with Wiletta’s outburst. The explicit social protest dimension of the show, in other words, comes through loud and clear.

I defy anyone who has not read Trouble in Mind, however, to discern the crucial details of shifting power and respect among the cast. Brandon Micheal Hall plays John, for example, as a starstruck puppy who is exactly as devoted and deferential to Wiletta in the end as in the beginning. No trace of shame or pretension either in his version of John or Danielle Campbell’s version of Judy, the white ingenue fresh out of Yale whom John has a crush on. All the play’s shop-talk exchanges are flattened, delivered at the same even-toned emotional pitch, and rushed through as if the stakes don’t matter. At one point, Randolph-Wright has four actors, ostensibly in earnest conversation, just stand in a line downstage and speak straight into the house. The moment is so artificial it seems designed to deny connections among the characters.

Among the most confusing scenes are those when the actors read passages from Chaos in Belleville. Granted, the irksome Manners (played with appropriate condescension by Michael Zegen) constantly interrupts and hectors so the actors never have a chance to relax into character. Still, Randolph-Wright has them speed through their rehearsed lines with such exaggerated affect and preplanned contempt that you can’t even understand the story, let alone decide whether the author of Chaos is a sincere failure or a sanctimonious hack. Here again, the fine-grained reality of the rehearsal room—engine of the play’s deepest drama—is blurred by sweeping, broad strokes.

Powerful and timely as it still is—and its prescient attack on structural racism has not dated—there is a patina of age on Trouble in Mind, a slight creakiness in its storytelling pace and 1950s social details. You can well imagine this worrying a director. The way to solve it for performance, though, is surely to invest wholeheartedly in the particularity of the play’s world and try to bring it alive again, not to dodge or ignore it.

Condemning racism is only one goal of this knotty and troubling play. It also explores racism’s roots, which are always in failures of connection between people. We have to feel those connections before we can be deeply moved by their failure.

Photo: Joan Marcus

by Alice Childress

directed by Charles Randolph-Wright

American Airlines Theatre/Roundabout Theatre Company

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