Trouble in Mind is a surprisingly timely renewal

Broadway review by Adam Feldman

The first day of rehearsals for a 1950s Broadway play about Lynching is about to begin, and a seasoned black actress shows off the ropes to a younger comrade. “Don’t be too arrogant. They don’t like it, ”Wiletta (LaChanze) advises John (Brandon Michael Hall) on how to deal with their white managers. Laughter! Laugh at everything they say, makes them feel superior. Beautiful Wiletta has a smile that lights up a room, and she knows how to turn it on whether she’s happy or not; John can get irritated by her. advice – “Sounds like uncle Tommish,” he says – but she’s been in the business long enough to know a business is what it is: no theater, as he imagines, but show business. (“People of color are not in the theater.”) And in this system, even on the rare occasions when they play a role that is not a nanny or a maid, the black performers remain the helper. .

So begins the edge of Alice Childress Problem in mind, which made its Off Broadway debut in 1955 and has now achieved Great White White for the first time in an exemplary production directed by Charles Randolph-Wright. Prospects of a transfer to Broadway in the 1950s, a pre-curtain announcement informs us, fell through when Childress refused to soften the end of the play. Therefore, Problem in mind has largely been forgotten, which makes this revival of the Roundabout Theater Company an even greater revelation. It’s as if an old curtain has been lifted from a mirror: to a surprising degree, the play anticipates many conversations that have taken place over the past two years about the devaluation of black performers in the world of theater. (“We have to go further and do better,” someone concludes.) What the play demonstrates, with humor and insight, is not that Childress somehow anticipated the concerns of today, but those same concerns have existed – and, in a real way, suppressed – for a very long time.

The play Wiletta and John are rehearsing is a drama called Chaos in Belleville, directed by a reckless Hollywood bloke named Manners (as in pay attention to your) who has modern ideas about truth and motivation to act. While well-intentioned, the play shows that it was created by white men for white audiences. “If we’re superior, we have to prove it by our actions,” says her white ingenuous, played by newly arrived Yale Judy (Danielle Campbell). The title problem arises when Wiletta begins to try to offer a real creative contribution to the realism – or lack of realism – of the character she plays: the mother of a young man determined to vote, despite the danger that faces him. represents in the depths. South. “Honey, don’t think so,” Manners (Michael Zegen) tells her. “You are awesome until you start to think.”

“I hate the kind of piece that hits you over the head with the message,” says Bill (Don Stephenson), Wiletta’s blustery white costar. What keeps Problem in mind of being such a room is the texture Childress provides: shrewd points on financial realities, fun observations on power dynamics behind the scenes – Manners is a monster to his manager (Alex Mickiewicz) and an old Irish doorman ( Simon Jones) – and, above all, knowing the banter among the black actors in the play. The actors who play them shine. Chuck Cooper gives a magnificent performance as veteran character Sheldon, who has witnessed a lynching firsthand, and Jessica Frances Dukes is a hoot as a showy but practical Millie. Corn Problem in mind emphasizes LaChanze, who holds the whole piece firmly in hand. She is the other revelation of this production: although she has played serious roles in musicals during her 35-year career, this is the first time that she has starred in a Broadway play. . “I want to be an actress,” Wiletta says. “Hell, I’m gonna be one, can you hear me?” A LaChanze actress turns out to be, and not just when she sings, and a damn good at it.

Problem in mind. American Airlines Theater (Broadway). By Alice Childress. Directed by Charles Randolph-Wright. With LaChanze, Chuck Cooper, Michael Zegen, Jessica Frances Dukes. Duration: 2h10. An intermission.

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Problem in mind | Photography: courtesy of Joan Marcus

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