But playwrights such as Diamond and Nottage do acknowledge a debt to Childress, and certainly identify with her as a trailblazer. “Without a doubt, that her play got that close was a stair-step,” says Diamond, whose “Stick Fly” has already been produced elsewhere, including at Arena Stage in early 2010 by its Broadway director, Kenny Leon.
Still, she stops herself from the kind of pronouncement that implies a circle has been closed; not enough work by enough people of color has regularly been produced for any kind of victory to be declared.
“Someone knew that it was good enough so that it almost got there, which is such a testament,” she says of “Trouble in Mind.” “If Suzan-Lori and Katori and Lynn and I got together we might say, ‘It’s a little safer today, and oh, look how far we’ve come. But we still have a long way to go.’ I feel that it’s important we learn from this moment, but not be so comforted by it that it has corrected all the wrong.”
Nottage takes this observation a step further, arguing that black women remain marginalized in many other facets of the entertainment industry, and figure more centrally in writing for theater because the form has been more welcoming. “There are more of us writing at a high level than ever before,” she avers. “But we have to find a medium in which we can do it. And it’s partly because we’re shut out of film and TV that we are writing for this medium.”
She points out that concurrently, Broadway is noticing the potency of African American ticket buyers, an economic force that for a long time had been undervalued. Today, that power can be seen everywhere, from touring productions of the comedies by Tyler Perry to the casting of major black actors in classics such as “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” and the current season’s impending “A Streetcar Named Desire,” with Blair Underwood as Stanley.
“I think there’s a sense in the industry that there’s a black audience out there interested and engaged,” Nottage says. “That audience was nourished — for better or worse — by Tyler Perry, and is looking for slightly more sophisticated fare.”
She is hopeful that “Vera Stark,” a play that had its debut off-Broadway in May, will be joining “Stick Fly” and “The Mountaintop” on Broadway. A comedy built around the story of a black actress of the ’30s who segues from working as a maid to portraying one in motion pictures, the work carries intimations of Childress’s own themes, in particular the constraints white writers and directors imposed on black performers.
In “Trouble in Mind,” Childress, who died in 1994, depicts a white stage director who considers himself progressive on racial issues. But as Butler’s Wiletta chafes at what she views as unsupportable behavior by her character in the script, the director reveals the limits of his tolerance. While the situation may not be precisely replicated in rehearsal rooms today, the dynamics remind some in the theater of the persistence of some unspoken restrictions.
“How many black directors direct plays that aren’t about black people?” asks playwright-director Charles Randolph-Wright, whose plays “Blue” and “Cuttin’ Up” had premieres at Arena. He’s also staged readings of “Trouble in Mind,” a play he has long adored and thinks has hardly aged a day.
“People would come up to me after the reading and say, ‘You rewrote this!’ ” he reports. “And I’d say, it’s horrifying how ‘present’ this is. It’s disappointing that 50 years later we’re still dealing with these issues. When you look at what one of the biggest selling movies of the year is, and it’s ‘The Help.’ ”
Randolph-Wright has not given up on the play; one of his readings featured Bill Irwin, LaChanze and Leslie Uggams, in the role Butler is playing at Arena. So who knows: Maybe Childress will join her fellow playwrights on Broadway, after all.