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”).
Playwrights such as Lorraine Hansberry, who wrote “A Raisin in the Sun,” and Ntozake Shange, author of “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf,” were forerunners of this current Broadway blossoming, but the fact is that precious few black women over the years have broken through as Broadway dramatists. (Nine plays by the most celebrated African American playwright, August Wilson, had productions on Broadway.)
Mindful of the difficult history outlined in Childress’s work, and of her own struggle to get to Broadway, some of the women who are being produced this season say they are not completely sure how to characterize their rise to prominence — or even totally comfortable with their being looked upon as part of a breakthrough season. The ambivalence grows in part out of an understanding of the often fluke-driven highs and lows of a playwriting career, and of the oddity of having a play produced on Broadway at all; some of them, confirmed veterans of regional theater and off-Broadway, say that they’d never even had Broadway in their sights.
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.