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The debut of ‘Trouble in Mind’ reveals progress — and enduring racism — on Broadway

Rejected in the 1950s for not having a happy ending, the play explores racism in the theater world.

The cast of "Trouble in Mind." (Marc J. Franklin)

Sixty years after producers abandoned it as a poor commercial risk, Alice Childress’s “Trouble in Mind,” a metadrama about discrimination, stereotyping and liberalism in American theater, finally debuted on Broadway on Friday. The play first hit the stage in 1955, a year marked by the murder of Emmett Till, the publication of James Baldwin’s collection of essays “Notes of a Native Son” and Rosa Parks’s refusal to vacate her seat for a White passenger in the colored section of a Montgomery, Ala., bus, which led to the Montgomery Bus Boycott.

Its origins lay in the coordinated grass-roots response to racial terror. Black dramatists joined demands for civil rights by staging acts of self-determination. “Trouble in Mind” underscored how racism shaped the characters and the stories of the American theater, and it would have been the first play by a Black woman on the Great White Way. But when Childress refused to make changes to the play that would have weakened its anti-racism message, producers lost interest.

Now as the country undergoes another racial reckoning, Childress’s play is finally getting its moment. Today, seemingly better-reconciled to our past, we are more able to grapple with American racism. This comes even as the same racial violence and working conditions that troubled Childress persist today.

Childress began her career as an actor, writer, director and board member with the American Negro Theatre (ANT). The ANT set up shop in a basement in New York’s Schomburg Center and served as a training ground for many accomplished Black actors, Childress among them. Childress appeared in the ANT’s production of Philip Yordan’s “Anna Lucasta” in 1944. The play, originally written for a White cast, moved from Harlem to Broadway and also featured Hilda Simms, Frederick O’Neal, Earle Hyman and Canada Lee.

Kathy Perkins, lighting designer of the 2021 Roundabout Theatre’s production of “Trouble in Mind,” who also edited a collection of Childress’s plays, recalled, “When I interviewed Sidney Poitier, he said he saw Childress act before he met her, and he was just blown away by her acting skills. Everybody who saw her perform said she was such an amazing actress.”

Yet Childress’s acting career was derailed by the color codes that governed casting. As Perkins explained, “She was too light.” Casting for many shows required that an African American actor appear prototypically Black. At the same time, segregation depended on Black people not being able to play White roles. Childress found herself in a racial no-woman’s-land.

This reality taught Childress about the costs of making theater and inspired her to write “Trouble in Mind” with an eye toward showcasing the racism in the theater.

A play within a play, Childress’s comedy depicts characters rehearsing a drama called “Chaos in Belleville” about a lynching that takes place in a White southern community. The outside world seeps into the rehearsal room through direct references to national events, school desegregation and the Montgomery Bus Boycott. The main character, Wiletta Mayer, a veteran actress, clashes with the director, Al Manners, over how to interpret her role as a sharecropper’s wife. As written, Mayer’s role depicts a stereotypical self-sacrificing and submissive Black mother.

Rather than drawing inspiration from the women leading the grass-roots movements against racial violence and for civil rights, Mayer’s character often finds herself so overwhelmed she sings spirituals — and not in the tradition of protest songs inspired by the voices of Mahalia Jackson, Nina Simone and Miriam Makeba. Instead Mayer’s character cares more about social customs than Black people’s freedom. But at the climax of the play, Mayer has an epiphany, questioning her character’s willingness to accommodate others at the expense of her son.

After casting the play and rehearsing for weeks, the producers of the 1955 production threatened to cancel the show if Childress did not provide a happy ending. The original and published version of the play ends with Mayer and Manners in a standoff that threatens to doom the show. Mayer refuses to play the part as written and Manners, frustrated, ends rehearsal early and sends the cast home. Childress acceded to the demand, and revised the script to conclude with a reconciliation between the characters. The off-Broadway production changed Mayer’s act of self-determination to one of reconciliation.

The production of “Trouble in Mind” opened on Nov. 4, 1955, at the Greenwich Mews Theatre, located in the basement of the Village Presbyterian Church. With Clarice Taylor, Childress directed the play, which ran for 91 performances. Although it received rave reviews and garnered interest from Broadway producer Edward Eliscu, Childress felt regret.

She recalled in an interview with theater historian James Hatch, “They had me rewrite for two years until I couldn’t recognize the play one way or the other. … Then after one person dropped it, I think another person dropped it and then it just sat there and I felt like I didn’t want to do it anymore.”

Childress reinstated the original ending to help restore her vision — but at the cost of reaching Broadway. The play was abandoned as a poor commercial risk.

Broadway would not feature a play written by a Black woman until Lorraine Hansberry’s “A Raisin in the Sun” opened at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre in 1959.

But in 2021, “Trouble in Mind” is getting its moment on Broadway. The theater world’s issues with race have not abated in the 66 years since the play debuted. Black playwrights have repeatedly staged plays about their struggle to make innovative and commercially viable art.

George C. Wolf’s “Colored Museum,” which premiered in 1986, critiqued formulaic depictions of Black people onstage with a scene entitled, “The Last Mama-on-the-Couch Play.” Brenden Jacobs-Jenkins’s, “An Octoroon,” presented by Soho Rep in 2014, begins with a Black playwright delivering a monologue about expectations for race onstage.

Before the coronavirus pandemic shutdown in 2020, Jackie Sibblies Drury’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “Fairview” also displayed the tension between artists’ renderings of Black people onstage and audiences’ expectations. The first act shows a Black family in a comedic kitchen-sink drama. Turning everything on its head, the second act presents an absurdist interaction between an onstage audience and the Black family. The Black family replays the drama, now with the onstage audience intervening, critiquing, disrupting and revising the show. In the final scene, “Fairview” breaks the fourth wall and asks White members of the audience to acknowledge the role viewers play in what unfolds onstage. The interaction between the actors and the audience encourages spectators to rethink how we see Black performers.

After the murder of George Floyd and the death of Breonna Taylor, theater artists joined in the global call for racial justice. A coalition of theater makers who are Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) united under the name, We See You White American Theatre (WSYWAT), and wrote a manifesto in 2020 that sought more accountability in the composition of boards, audience cultivation and season planning.

They forced the theater world to respond. As theaters reopened this fall, Broadway boasts seven plays by Black people, including “Trouble in Mind.”

It will be telling how audiences engage with the deep irony of Childress’s play. The racial violence that framed the 1955 production still exists and American theater remains challenged by questions of inclusion. Yet as lighting designer Perkins notes, “We have a different audience today than they did in the ’50s. It’s a more diverse audience.” While the ending of Childress’s play rendered it a poor commercial risk in 1955, producers seem to have calculated that the risk of not seeing Black people onstage in 2021 is much greater.