The versatile Chicago and Washington actress E. Faye Butler recounted a call she received to audition in New York for a British stage version of “Gone With the Wind.” “Faye, there’s a famous director and he really wants to see you for it,” she recalls her agent telling her. Intrigued — how often does London beckon? — she asked to be sent the “sides,” the portions of the script with which she’d have to audition.
“All I got was a description: ‘African-American woman sits on porch with handkerchief on head and sings a spiritual.’ I said, ‘You want me to take an Acela train to New York City and go into an audition with a rag on my head and moan and groan and sing a spiritual?’ ” She laughs, but not because the memory is funny. “I was absolutely furious,” she says. “Hadn’t we gotten past that kind of thing? I got past it long ago.”
The question of how evolved the performing arts are for black women — even in this presumably enlightened era of gender and racial identity — is posed anew by an old play in which Butler is appearing at the moment at Arena Stage. It is a play from the 1950s by another black woman, Alice Childress, who faced her own formidable obstacles in an industry unwilling at the time to yield her total control over her cold-eyed portrait of the subtle forms of racism she observed in the entertainment business.
Childress’s acclaimed “Trouble in Mind” — an exceptional production that runs through Sunday in Arena’s Kreeger Theater — never made it all the way to Broadway; in a foreword to the published version of the 1955 play, the dramatist is quoted as saying that the show’s producers “had me rewrite for two years” but that she declined to provide “the heartwarming little story” they desired. She kept to her vision of the drama, the tale of a first rehearsal of a bad if well-intentioned Southern play, in which the black actors, eager for employment, were forced to play humiliating stereotypes.
The bittersweet irony of Arena’s production, beautifully realized by director Irene Lewis and her interracial cast, is not just that “Trouble in Mind” is getting the supple treatment that an underappreciated classic deserves. It also materializes at a time of seemingly unprecedented exposure for black female playwrights on Broadway.
This season, for apparently the first time, the American theater’s most visible platform will host as many as four distinct works written or adapted by African American women. Already running is the Martin Luther King Jr. play “The Mountaintop,” by the young playwright Katori Hall, starring Samuel L. Jackson and Angela Bassett. Next month comes “Stick Fly,” Lydia R. Diamond’s upper-middle-class family drama, featuring Dule Hill, Mekhi Phifer and Tracie Thoms with music by Alicia Keys. December sees a new edition of the Gershwins-DuBose Heyward opera “Porgy and Bess,” with a revised book by Pulitzer winner Suzan-Lori Parks (“Topdog /Underdog”). And angling for a theater this spring is “By the Way, Meet Vera Stark,” by another Pulitzer recipient, Lynn Nottage (“Ruined”).