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Though there may still be some power to Trouble In Mind, the 1957 race-relations dramedy that very nearly made Alice Childress the first black woman playwright to have a show produced on Broadway, it’s not being unleashed with as much intensity as you might wish in Irene Lewis’ busily unsubtle re-mount at Arena’s Kreeger Theater.
You’d think this play—which details the social and psychological pressures a mixed-race troupe of actors faces while prepping a well-meaning but risibly stereotyped anti-lynching melodrama for its Broadway debut—would have some intriguing resonances for a company that was founded as an alternative both to ’50s commercial theater and to segregated playhouses elsewhere in the nation’s capital. But as broadly staged and performed at Arena, it registers mostly as a somewhat dated harangue.
Admittedly, there are moments of grace. A gospel spiritual lands with offhandedly quiet authority as sung by African-American actress Wiletta (E. Faye Butler) when she’s still excited about getting her first shot at a leading role and hasn’t started tying herself in knots over her character’s motivations. So does a rip-snorting rant by that same player not long after, when she’s analyzed those motivations more fully than her white director (Marty Lodge) intended, and has decided that said leading role isn’t worth betraying herself, her people, and everything she believes in.
Much of what surrounds those moments, however, is less well-managed by a cast that’s adopting so many acting styles to inhabit the backstage types (preening character actor, innocent ingénue) who are struggling not to play into race-play stereotypes (Boss, Mammy, Uncle Tom) that we sometimes seem to be watching not just the play and the play-within-a-play, but several different versions of each at once. Nor does it help matters that Lewis’ staging seems more concerned with the natural placement of chairs than with the sort of naturalism that would make sense of the characters.
Childress’ intriguingly prescient mid-century opus predicts some of the divisions that would bubble up a few years later as white America began to deal with a Civil Rights movement just hitting its stride. Having performed with the American Negro Theater for 11 years, she perhaps naturally envisioned a ’50s backstage (nicely realized here by designer David Korins) as an ideal get-in-touch-with-your-feelings lab for examining the racial divide. Then she conjured up a nifty social experiment to fill it: a clueless white director who thinks he’s mounting a socially progressive play, Chaos in Belleville, only to find that his black actors see it and their parts as condescending and degrading. When the performers question the production’s premises, the director erupts in fury, and since he holds the power, they have to decide where their own best interests lie.
Given the play’s mix of political commentary and satire (both of theatrical and racial stereotypes), it’s understandable that Trouble in Mind has been belatedly embraced by regional theaters, including Baltimore’s CenterStage, where a production much like this one (headed by Butler and directed by Lewis) drew favorable reviews in 2007. As the evening, which was then described by Variety as “dramatically satisfying,” is now being pitched well past the Kreeger Theater rafters, I can only assume it’s become broader over time, but there’s no question that it’s an interesting artifact. What might have happened if it had gone on to Broadway in 1957, raised hackles, and become the groundbreaker that Lorraine Hansberry’s considerably less adventurous but better crafted A Raisin in the Sun was two years later?
Instead, Childress battled producers who sought script changes (a development with echoes of the backstage drama she’d crafted) before finally withdrawing production rights and watching Trouble in Mind retreat into relative oblivion. She had other successes—most notably her young-adult novel, A Hero Ain’t Nothin’ but a Sandwich, which she adapted as a screenplay for a 1978 film starring Cicely Tyson and Paul Winfield. But while her theatrical output continued into the 1980s, Childress never had the fame or career that her early efforts seemed to point her toward—a shame, since her virtues as a writer, on vivid display in Trouble In Mind, include the naturalness of her dialogue, a focus on strong female characters, and an ability to pinion social attitudes with acid humor.
“You can’t,” she has a character say at one point, “spit in somebody’s eye, and tell them you was washin’ it out.”
Actually, you can. But when they object, your career may well take a skid, a fact attested to by the fate of both the character to whom that line’s addressed—and the author who wrote it.