Alice Childress finally receives a proper Broadway premiere in the Roundabout Theatre Company’s very humorous and profound production of Trouble in Mind, directed by Charles Randolph-Wright. Childress’ work, which stars an exceptional lead cast (LaChanze, Chuck Cooper, Michael Zegen, Brandon Michael Hall, Jessica Frances Dukes, Danielle Campbell), is a complex, sardonic and LOL play. It explores the cultural backdrops, impossible Civil Rights issues in the nation and their impact on the world of New York City theater in the 1950s.
The theatrical lens that Childress uses employs her own life experiences as an actress who never received roles which would allow her to express the full range of her talents onstage because of her skin color. Indeed, very few of the black theater actors were treated with the respect they deserved, tethered to the stereotypical roles that continued to foment institutional racism in the South and the North because such roles “comforted” the audiences and solidified the power structure.
It is to her credit and our great appreciation that Childress was a maverick who wrote Trouble in Mind (1955), that was well received off Broadway, but whose backers wanted major cuts and extrapolations before they brought it to Broadway to stem their fear of offending the largely white audience and hurting receipts. Rather than agree with having her artistic truthfulness destroyed to line the pockets of the producers, though it would further her career, Childress took a stand and pulled the play. Her actions present a beacon of courage for artists everywhere. Nevertheless, in refusing to compromise the themes, characters and indictments of the play against racism, she became a martyr for great theater art, and the work was excluded for 66 years from a Broadway presentation until this year.
Though others took up the cause and presented her play in various venues (it is being done in London), historically this incident indicates the dark clouds that hover over Broadway and theater to this day in issues of censorship, whether right or left, and the sub rosa, sometimes unspoken but understood restrictions placed upon artists and writers, whose works have great moment for our time, but who will never be given a hearing because of the gatekeepers and inherent power structure which shoots them down for whatever reason.
Trouble in Mind cleverly exposes this type of racist, sexist banishment and oppression with ridicule and ironic humor to powerful effect. The playwright reveals the hierarchy and dualism (controlled vs. controllers), of the theater world using a play within a play structure. The power structure is nullifying; there is no collaboration to make a better production. There is only the insistence in maintaining what is, killing artistry with repetition and dead, wooden characters, relationships and themes to pamper audiences.
Thus, in the name of entertainment, truth is sacrificed and the vital purpose of theater, to touch peoples’ lives and bring people together in a sense of community, is never fully realized. Indeed, Childress shows that such mediocre and superficial plays result in the wiping out of the true nature, identity, relationships and reactions of Black people historically in the US, depriving society of the spectacular contributions of a people and culture they refuse to acknowledge.
As the play opens Childress hints at this when experienced actress Wiletta Mayer (the incisive LaChance) shows the ropes to inexperienced John Nevins (the collected, often innocently funny Brandon Michael Hall), in how to deal with their director Al Manners (an ironic name if ever there was one). Michael Zegen portrays the increasingly stressed and unlikeable director, a difficult role, with nuance and fervency. Wiletta, with the help of veteran actors Sheldon Forrester (the inimitable and drop dead hysterical Chuck Cooper), and Millie Davis (the fine Jessica Frances Dukes), show John how to subtly “Yasss” the director, and second guess what he wants without being abrasive and obstructionist. For example, one inside joke is milked throughout the play: Wiletta tells John not to say he’s “inexperienced.” “Just tell him you were in Porgy and Bess as a child!” Since Childress prepped the audience for this joke, when it is reiterated to Manners, its double meaning is hysterical.
Schooling John in how to negotiate being black in white theater is superbly rendered by LaChanze, Cooper, Dukes and Hall to reveal the key themes of the play. Humor has helped blacks be incredibly resilient survivors as they continually dupe their “handlers” about what they really feel. On the other hand it has been soul killing to not be real and authentic. We understand this torment when Wiletta finally confronts the director with her truth because she is tired of the charade of “getting over” while subjugating herself and her identity. An elucidating irony reveals this is double indemnity. Such oppression is suicidal to whites as they push the racist line of the patriarchy to the point where such higher ups limit their artistic endeavors, achievements and bottom line for themselves.
How much more might theater be enriched if truthful revelations were embraced regarding all cultures and races? It would be life affirming and life changing. But the walking dead don’t know the difference. Instead, they refuse to be offended.
After Wiletta, Sheldon and Millie “educate” John in the black etiquette theater manual of how to be a success in the company of whites, he proves such a superior pupil in navigating the racist white attitudes, that he uses their knowledge against them, confused about his core self. As the audience is made knowledgeable about blacks’ dual identities, it realizes that it is being ridiculed with Childress’ brilliant set ups of humor. This is an indictment of the culture which “can’t handle” the reality that they are bigots and their racism must be coddled. The epitome of this sardonic thread is the truth that blacks are actually the polite, smart adults in “putting up with” whites’ necessary inhumanity of racism when, via projection, they are treated as children who don’t know much of anything. Who is duping whom in self-betrayal?
The playwright’s ironies are sage. Indeed, the audience, like the white controllers, is being “had,” if they think blacks enjoy oppression, insult and having their civil rights and humanity negated. A pure pleasure is how Childress presents all of these aforementioned themes and relates them to our culture today.
I find it interesting that the original producers were so worried that they actually had the “sensitivity” to realize that the play indicts the audience’s bigotry and racism. Or maybe they were upset at something else? Their own bigotry? The joke is wide-ranging, but the producers weren’t laughing, though the joke was on them, when Childress refused to change her work.
Act I is rife with the humor that the veteran actors, Sheldon, Millie and Wiletta set up to be mined throughout until in Act II, Wiletta has “had it.” The requisite subtle irony to soft peddle racism no longer appeals because she wants to be a great actress and the lies of bigotry are getting in the way. When Zegen’s Al Manners attempts to tell her how to be “natural” and not “think,” and that by thinking, she doesn’t “get” the character, LaChanze’s Wiletta boils with rage as he demeans her talent. And that anger spills over when she questions Manners about her character’s reactions in a scene when she is trying to protect her son from a lynch mob. The mother’s response and the son’s response is inauthentic, fake, and indeed, kowtows to white supremacists. The implication of her questions is clear.
When LaChanze’s Wiletta aptly confronts Zegen’s Manners about this, the explosion is inevitable. Manners walks away throwing the production in jeopardy and the other actors who need the money for the entire run are thrown into a tailspin. Trouble in Mind concludes in uncertainty. Though Wiletta took a stand confronting the director in the hope of evolving the play into an authentic rendering, only she is satisfied. For her it is worth it even if she destroys her career, which we understand by the end is meaningless if she, herself, can’t be who she really is. Childress ends with hope: Wiletta recites Psalm 133 to Henry (the excellent Simon Jones), as a spiritual petition and prayer for things to be better in the future.
Thus, we understand what happens if a black actor even dares to question the power structure represented by Manners; it’s potentially over. The play within a play ends but Wilette/Childress goes on. It is a prescient twist upon an ironic twist, considering that it took 66 years for the indictment of Broadway’s white power structure to finally be presented by the Roundabout with Trouble in Mind. What’s even more ironic is that the message still pertains.
To conclude. Last night, I sat next to an experienced actor and his wife, a Rutgers professor and casting director. Both affirmed that “getting a play produced” is the most difficult and heart-wrenching process in theater today. Childress indicates some of the reasons in her amazing work which targets racism, chauvinism, and sexism. Importantly, her timeless play’s themes relate to every “ism” that one might lay bare about human nature and oppression in the arts, especially by those who exploit creatives to gain the highest profits, while starving the artistic team, playwrights, actors. This has been especially egregious for those of color.
Sadly, this bigotry and discrimination is allegedly done for the sake of “entertainment.” The result is mediocrity and a fear of novel, original work. Instead, there is a steady repetition of old standby revivals or shows created from blockbuster films; there are few quality dramas or even musical productions. What has been sacrificed, is as Trouble in Mind reveals. Theater, the paramount live medium to touch lives. stir our humanity, bring community, and create a better society has been diminished. And there is no Tinker Bell to come along and revive it, thus far.
Trouble in Mind is a step in the right direction, however. Bravo to Roundabout to stage it.
Kudos to the additional actors who made this production sing with truth and humor. Alex Mickiewicz as Eddie Fenton and Don Stephenson as Bill O’Wray. Final shout outs go to Arnulfo Maldonado (set design), Emilio Sosa (costume design), Kathy A. Perkins (lighting design), Dan Moses Schreier (sound design) and the other creatives. You don’t want to miss the fine cast, Childress’ priceless, sharp wit and this long awaited Broadway premiere. For tickets and times go to their website CLICK HERE.
Lynn Nottage’s By the Way, Meet Vera Stark at the Pershing Square Signature Center is a comical/tragic study in black Hollywood’s greats that few recognize because the racism and oppression in the nation was also reflected in Hollywood institutions. Nottage follows the career of black actress Vera Stark across seven decades and examines how she fared while the roles for black women remained static as maids, servants, slaves and menials. The setting is Hollywood, but the time shifts from 1933 (film studio and apartment) to 1973 on Brad Donovan’s Hollywood TV show and 2003 during a Hollywood film colloquium.
We are first introduced to the incomparable Vera Stark (Jessica Frances Dukes) in the 1930s when she is young, beautiful, vibrant and naive about launching her career in the movies. Working as a maid for “America’s little sweetie pie” Gloria Mitchell (Jenni Barber), Vera creates her own opportunities and lands the prized role as a maid in a picture starring two of her friends and Gloria Mitchell called The Belle of New Orleans.
Nottage’s characterization of Vera Stark reveals the actor’s assiduous work ethic, her dogged ambition and supreme cleverness at jiving the system and environment she is in. She negotiates helping Gloria Mitchell with everything from her image and wearing the right clothes, to reading lines with her for the audition that Gloria needs to get a plum part which will strengthen her career. It is this audition that Vera hopes to also parlay into a role for herself to eventually rise up the ladder of stardom.
Act I is filled with humor that indicates the sub rosa black culture’s fronting and milking the stereotypes whites have of them behind their backs. Joined by her friend Lottie McBride (the fine Heather Alicia Simms) who also has come to Hollywood and has eaten herself out of house and home to play a mammy slave part to no avail, their playfulness and criticism of their circumstances indicates they are survivors and will hang on until they achieve what they want, though the roles available to them are as slaves, maids and servants.
We meet another “high yellow” black actress Anna Mae Simpkins (the funny Carra Patterson) a quasi friend who is looking to advance herself by dating various directors and other filmmakers and passing herself off as a Brazilian. The interactions between the women and a foreign director are beyond hysterical, and Nottage has fun with turning assumptions about blacks on their head. When the director assumes that all blacks come from a slave background, Vera and Lottie act the parts of the oppressed for him with hysterical precision mugging the stereotypes, convincing the director to give them parts in his film.
Act I presents the backstory of these four women before they achieve artistic greatness in the film The Belle of New Orleans which all of them are cast in. The beauty of this production is how Nottage chronicles the development of Vera Stark. So we actually get to see the film in black and white. And all of the actresses are superb, placed into the film’s reality. On stage and in real life, these women, Lottie, Gloria, Anna Mae and Vera are “larger than life.” However, on film the actresses give the roles they play a resonance and authenticity. We understand why and how (based on the last moments of the film), the film is a great and iconic one in the annals of film history and often the subject of film colloquiums.
After the screening of The Belle of New Orleans, Herb Forrester (Warner Miller) steps out from the curtain and we realize that he has just shown the film at a colloquium in Hollywood. As Forrester proceeds, we hear a disposition about Vera Stark’s identity as a black actress and how she was able to make a life and career for herself despite the demeaning roles black men and women played as slaves, helpers, servants, chauffeurs, etc., reflecting the culture at large. Joined by Carmen Levy-Green (Heather Alicia Simms) and Afua Assata Ejobo (Carra Patterson) we are struck by the cultural ironies as these heady intellectuals play the elites while they dissect Vera Stark and cast her “blackness” in philosophical racial identities that Nottage turns into hysterical objectifications.
The humor as the two women argue about Vera Stark’s identity, gender and racial politics with Forrester, who appears to deal with them in all his glorious paternalism, is just great. Act II brings all the tropes together and the liveliness of the conflict between the black male and the two female guests is superbly done.
Even more superb is the flashback to a tape of the afternoon talk show (a la Merv Griffin style) that stars host Brad Donovan with guest, the great black actress Vera Stark. Forrester plays the taped interview with Vera Stark to reveal what happened to her after she had her Hollywood career that never advanced beyond the cultural stereotypes and roles that the white paternalistic studio heads created for her.
In this taped session which we see live, Jessica Frances Dukes appears more like a version of every starlet who faded irretrievably into old age and alcoholism and speaks with a wobbly voice rather like Katherine Hepburn’s. Every moment of the taping, the diva, Vera Stark is “on.” She sings a bit and entertains with humor another guest, Peter Rhys-Davies (Manoel Felciano). All goes swimmingly as Vera gets drunker and drunker until surprise! Donovan trots out Gloria Mitchell so the women have a reunion to discuss The Belle of New Orleans. The difference between how Vera Stark has aged and how Gloria Mitchell has aged is striking and revelatory. Gloria Mitchell who had a career, and the substantial money to take care of her body looks the same. Vera Stark, who has allowed the excesses of alcohol and demeaning parts to overtake her soul, has aged and appears to be a tragic figure.
This is a subtle devastation which the host doesn’t appear to “get,” but which Vera Stark finally does. And in an epiphany she relates that she is still enslaved to a role she played decades ago. Now, once again, she must confront Gloria Mitchell and the role of Tilly, though she has gone on to do other parts during her career she perceived she made for herself. Only with this final confrontation, Vera realizes she has allowed the culture to dupe her. And she vows, it is for the last time. Dukes’ Vera is fabulous in this section and the ensemble fields her beautifully.
How Nottage concludes the third segment with Forrester, Levy Green and Ejobo continuing to disagree with each other’s dialectic about Vera Stark is both humorous and sardonic. For they have completely missed the point which we clearly have seen in the segments. Vera Stark was morphed by the circumstances of Hollywood. The rumors of how she ended her life are even more ironic as we listen to the elites discuss a woman they knew very little about. Then Nottage in the last few minutes configures another fabulous revelation that is poignant and beautiful. You will just have to see this wonderful production to appreciate it for yourself.
By the way, Meet Vera Stark runs with one intermission until 10th of March at the Pershing Square Signature Center. You can pick up tickets by CLICKING HERE.
Artistic Creatives: Clint Ramos (Scenic Design) Dede M. Ayite (Costume Design) Matt Frey (Lighting Design) Mikaal Sulaiman (Sound Design) KAtherine Freer (Projetion Design) Daniel Kluger (Composer) Mia Neal (Hair and Wig Design)