In the fall of 2021, Alice Childress’ play “Trouble in Mind” finally made its Broadway debut, which would have happened more than six decades earlier if not for the Black playwright’s decision to keep her vision for the insightful work intact.
Critically acclaimed in its Tony Award-nominated Roundabout Theatre revival earlier this year, the play, which paints a realistic portrait of what it was like to be Black in the theater industry in the 1950s, debuted Off Broadway in 1955 at the Greenwich Mews Theatre. It was quickly optioned for Broadway — the caveat being Childress was asked to make changes that would make the script more palatable for commercial audiences. Translation: white audiences.
After several years of rewrites and attempts to appease producers over the course of the process, Childress walked away and negotiations for the Broadway transfer broke down. When the play was eventually published as part of an anthology in 1971, she had restored the drama to its original form.
Now considered a classic of Black theater, the once rarely produced “Trouble in Mind” is being staged at theaters around the country including at TimeLine Theatre, under the direction of Ron OJ Parson, who last season helmed a critically acclaimed TimeLine production of Tyla Abercrombie’s new play “Relentless.”
“I came up during the Black theater movement and I was interested in plays by the Black playwrights,” recalls Parson, who directed a 2014 student production of the “Trouble in Mind” at Northwestern University. “They were the writers that led the way for us, and Childress was among them. She’s been a part of my history in the theater for a long time.”
Childress’ play is a backstage comedy-drama about a group of Black actors (the play-within-a play’s writer and director are white) who gather to rehearse a new anti-lynching drama called “Chaos in Belleville.”
The lead character, a middle-aged Black actress named Wiletta Mayer, is only now getting her first chance at a Broadway role after years of playing maids and kindly country folk. But she finds the play filled with cliches and as her frustrations grows, she clashes with the play’s director.
Childress started out as an actor but turned to playwriting to create roles representative of the people she encountered in her life in order to counter the multitude of stereotypes of Black people prevalent in theater at the time.
Childress is “a woman and a Black woman and you can hear that in her writing,” Parson says. “You can hear the strength of the Black woman in America through her plays.” As for Wiletta, he adds, “It’s a strong character, a role a Black actress can sink her teeth into.”
Shariba Rivers, who stars as Wiletta and is making her TimeLine debut, says, “It feels like Wiletta and I are walking in lockstep even though this is 2022. It’s empowering to step into those shoes and go on this journey with her.”
Rivers adds: “Wiletta puts this face on until she can’t do it anymore and she’s like hell no, absolutely not. Thinking about the ’50s and what it would take for a Black woman to say that to a white director — she’s putting it all on the line.”
One of the ways the play remains relevant today is the idea of the Black experience being reflected through the lens of whiteness, says Tim Decker, who portrays Al Manners, the unseeing director Wiletta goes up against.
“That is just the air that he breathes, and he cannot understand what she’s talking about or where her anger and frustration are coming from,” Decker says. “He doesn’t have the wherewithal to process any of that or understand her point of view.”
While Childress did not make history as the first female Black playwright on Broadway, that honor would eventually go to Lorraine Hansberry for another classic of Black theater — “A Raisin in the Sun,” which debuted in 1959.
But Childress, who wrote more than a dozen plays and five novels, will be remembered for fighting against stereotypes and penning plays that continued to honor true portrayals of Black people
For Rivers, Childress’ message in “Trouble in Mind” remains vital today.
“What’s interesting for me is how relevant the play still is,” says Rivers. “Black people particularly are still fighting this battle over identity, over being able to name themselves and speak for themselves and define themselves without interference or without commentary.
“Movements like Black Lives Matter are created because we’re still saying: Stop seeing us this way and understand we are deserving of respect and dignity just like everybody else.”