Alice Childress: Trouble in Mind (Theatre Communications Group, 2022)

I recall teachers urging me to write composition papers about Blacks who were “accomplishers” – those who win prizes and honors by overcoming … racial, physical, economic, or other handicaps … to become “winners.” I turned against the tide and to this day I continue to write about those who come in second,  or not at all … the “ordinary,” because they are not ordinary.” – Alice Childress

Last year, 2021, saw an unprecedented seven plays by African American playwrights* opening on Broadway, the ‘Great White Way’. Among them was Trouble in Mind, a play by Alice Childress (1916-1994) that had debuted off-Broadway in 1955. This is the stuff journalists (like myself) make headlines out of, like: “Black play reaches Broadway after 66 years.” But why the long wait?

Trouble in Mind. Alice Childress’ play is the first in TCG/Theatre Communications Group’s new Illuminations series, curated and edited by playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, who also wrote “Still for a Second: An Afterword” to Trouble in Mind, a title Jacobs-Jenkins speculates that Childress took from Dinah Washington’s sultry, sophisticated version of the popular 1924 standard that has been recorded by numerous other artist. Among more contemporary interpreters Jacob-Jenkins mentions artists like Nina Simone, Aretha Franklin, and blues singer Georgia White:

Trouble in mind, I’m blue/ But I won’t be blue always/ ‘cause the sun’s gonna shine in  my back door some day. // … // Trouble in mind, that’s true/ I’ve almost lost my mind … // … // I’m gonna lay my head/ On some lonesome railroad line/ Let the 2:19 train ease my trouble mind. //

Directed by African American director Charles Randolph-Wright, Trouble in Mind opened on Broadway at the American Airlines Theatre on November 18, 2021.  

It is a ‘play within a play’: On stage a group of mostly black actors are rehearsing Chaos in Belleville, written by an absent white playwright. While Chaos in Belleville is a supposedly anti-lynching play, Trouble in Mind centers on the growing conflict between the white director, Al Manners, and his leading actress Wiletta Mayer (played on Broadway by Tony Award winning actress-singer-dancer LaChanze) on the truth of Chaos in Belleville’s portrayal of black character, particularly the Chaos in Belleville character of Ruby, played by Wiletta Mayer herself.

“I don’t believe this.” Al Manners considers himself to be a liberal when it comes to race, having decided to produce and direct an anti-lynching play on Broadway to add to his CV.

Ruby’s son, Job, despite Ruby’s objections, have attended a meeting with Turner, a young civil rights worker. Job: “I got a letter from the president ‘bout goin’ in the army. Turner says when that happens, a man’s ‘s’posed to vote and things.” The white powers-that-be do not agree: “Boy, you’re a mighty little fellow to fly in the face of things people live by ‘round here.” And a white lynching mob looking for Job will have none of black people wanting ‘to vote and things’.  

Belleville’s Ruby must persuade Job to give himself up to the sheriff for protection against the mob despite Job’s protestations: “But I ain’t done nothin’!” Predictably, Job never makes it to jail.

As rehearsals progress Wiletta grows increasingly critical of the Chaos in Belleville manuscript and Al Manners: “I don’t believe this … I don’t see why the boy couldn’t get away … why this boy’s people turned against him? Why we sendin’ him out into the teeth of a lynch mob? I’m his mother and I’m sendin’ him to his death. This is a lie.” Wiletta wants something closer to the truth. She wows: “I’m playin’ a leadin’ part and I want this script changed or else …”

Towards the end of the play Manners has exited to the dressing room sending back a message to the cast that they are dismissed for the day to be telephoned next day about “tomorrow’s rehearsal.”  

THE TCG VERSION of Trouble in Mind published here is not the same as that produced off-Broadway in 1955. According to Jacobs-Jenkins it is the product of decades of thought and reworking. For even to get her play produced off-Broadway Childress had to make compromises, softening the ending to make it a happier one, less confrontational and ambiguos. 

In An Afterword Jacobs-Jenkins calls our attention to the opening scene of the play where Wiletta entering the theater must be ‘still for a second’: “This is a story of a woman who … bears a love for the theater that is reverential. She is among its truest and humblest servants, the actor.” Believing still in a possible redemptive role of the stage in a theater that has betrayed her over and again.

In the few lines above we have looked only briefly at one aspect of a richly textured play situated firmly in the America of the 1950s. It is not, as one reviewer would have it, a play that “could have been written yesterday.” Its contemporary relevance lies in the ever ongoing struggle for control of who will decide how African American character and lives will be portrayed, on the American stage  of the 1950s, in today’s media, and even in the very writing of American history.

Why Broadway matters. In 1957 Alice Childress’ Trouble in Mind could have been the first play ever by an African American woman playwright to reach Broadway. It did not happen, because Childress refused once again to compromise her artistic vision to make her play more commercially acceptable to Broadway and its predominantly white audience: "They had me rewrite for two years until I couldn't recognize the play one way or the other ..."

Instead this ‘the first’ went to Lorraine Hansberry (1930-1965) and her hugely successful play, A Raisin in the Sun, that premiered at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre on March 11, 1959, directed by Lloyd Richards with a stellar cast lead by Sidney Poitier, Ruby Dee, Claudia McNeil, Diana Sands, Ivan Dixon and Louis Gossett, in 1961 made into a Hollywood movie with roughly the same cast.

But why does Broadway matter? Two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Lynn Nottage (see Index) has this to say: “It is a really big platform. On Broadway you are speaking to the world.”

The fate of A Raisin in the Sun and Trouble in Mind is a case in point. Only after being produced on Broadway have English speaking media and even the occasionally Danish newspaper finally taken notice of one of Childress’ major plays. Even as the hype surrounding the story of its 66 year journey towards Broadway threatens to overshadow the merit and the meaning of the play itself. 

UFI// 12 September 2022      

*NPR on July10 2021, under the headline ”Broadway Is Reopening This Fall, And Every New Play Is By A Black Writer,” list the following seven plays/playwrights in order of opening dates:

Pass Over by Antoinette Chinonye Nwandu, Chicken & Biscuits by Douglas Lyons, Lackawanna Blues written and directed by Ruben Santiago-Hudson, Thoughts of a Colored Man by Keenan Scott II, Trouble in Mind by Alice Childress, Clyde’s, a new play by Lynn Nottage, and Skeleton Crew by Dominique Morrisseau, a second play directed by Santiago-Hudson.  

The Alice Childress quote in the epigraph above comes from her article A Candle in a Gale Wind printed in the anthology Black Women Writers (1950-1980): A Critical Evaluation (Anchor Books/  Doubleday, 1984), edited by poet Mari Evans (1923-2017).  

At the back of the TCG book there is a brief portrait of Alice Childress as actress; fiction writer: A Short Walk (1979, a novel), the hilarious Like One of the Family: Conversations from a Domestic’s Life (1956) that benefits from Childress’ ear for dialogue, A Hero Ain't Nothin' but a Sandwich (1973, filmed 1978) and other books for young readers; and dramatist.

Theatre historian Kathy A. Perkins, credited for doing the lighting design for the Broadway production of Trouble in Mind, is the editor of the Selected Plays of Alice Childress (Northwestern University Press, 2011), including her first play, the one-act Florence (1949), Trouble in Mind, Wedding Band: A Love/Hate Story in Black and White (1966), and Wine in the Wilderness (1969).