TROUBLE IN MIND
December 2, 2021
"You're not paid to think!" Sadly, that admonition is heard by many actors. The idea that someone else controls all your decisions is galling and in the newly revived drama "Trouble in Mind" it's downright maddening.
Written in 1955 by the African American playwright, Alice Childress, Trouble in Mind was an Off-Broadway theater hit but never got a ticket to Broadway because of the controversial subject matter.
Some 66 years later, the play finally landed on Broadway.
The grand ensemble cast is led by a spot-on LaChanze as the esteemed, seasoned actor Wiletta Mayer along with the elder statesman Sheldon Foresster (Chuck Cooper) who's just about seen it all; a brash Millie Davis (Jessica Frances Dukes); the white, privileged ingenue Judy Sears (Danielle Campbell); her counterpart, the young, idealistic John Nevins (Brandon Michael Hall); an actor of vaudevillian proportions Bill O'Wray (Don Stephenson); the backstage theater staple Henry (Simon Jones) and the challenging, myopic, self-appointed progressive, white director, Al Manners (Michael Zegen).
One by one, the actors arrive on a spare stage to rehearse a play based on a lynching. LaChanze appears in a marvelous tailored dress and jacket (by Emilio Sosa) and inhales mixed memories of a life in the theater. All the experienced black actors are grateful to have a job, yet frustrated with the assigned roles and expectations.
When the young, optimistic John proudly announces his dramatic training and Off-Broadway credits, LaChanze insists he smiles when the director arrives and pretend he was a child in the last production of "Porgy and Bess."
That cringy exchange is crammed with generational inequities experienced by non-white people let alone actors.
Despite the fact that he believes he's directing a groundbreaking work, Manners' in-bred, stereotypical assumptions flatten the souls of actors.
Longing to play "real" woman, La Chanze --who claims a professional history with the director--struggles to portray the mother of the young man who's about to be lynched as a three-dimensional woman. But her logical suggestions are brushed off. He insists on outsized expressions, wide eyed amazement/horror and wild gesticulations.
When LaChanze challenges the portrayal of a mother willing to give up her son to a lynching, Sheldon explodes the charade and recounts, in chilling detail, his horrifying memory witnessing a lynching.
Despite this reality by baptism, Manners plunges forward because, afterall, the question is less about the truth and more about the limits of white America's acceptance of a fully integrated America.
A collegial group of professionals constantly jostling for favor, all the characters find their voices at one point or another. A delicious competition between LaChanze and Mayer rings out the majority of the laughs. Immensely likable, both the young buck John and old-school Sheldon represent the past the and future while the misguided director points to changes still in the making.
Director Charles Randolp-Wright engineers a complicated scenario of racial politics and biting humor.
EYE ON THE ARTS, NY -- Celia Ipiotis