Alice Childress finally gets to make “problems” on Broadway

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Wiletta Mayer walks into the theater already knowing how things are going to turn out. Dressed elegantly, attractive and middle-aged (don’t ask for a number, because “a woman who will say her age will say anything”), she is a seasoned actress who has played maids and moms and knows how take care of the white directors and producers. You can call him “Uncle Tomming”. Or you can call it common sense. Either way, it’s a life.

Until enough is enough.

Alice Childress created Wiletta Mayer, the protagonist of her 1955 play, “Trouble in Mind”, to paint a realistic portrayal of what it was like to be black in the theater industry. Or to be more precise: she wanted to portray what he is being black in the theater, because 66 years later, as the play opens on Broadway this month in a Roundabout Theater Company production, the words Childress wrote remain just as relevant.

And yet this author and this play, a dramatic comedy about an interracial cast rehearsing an anti-lynching play written by a white author and directed by a white director, have not had their fair share in the decades since its release. first. Childress was supposed to be the first black playwright on Broadway, with a play criticizing the racism and misogyny of the theater industry.

Thanks to the interference of white theaters and an unwelcoming Broadway to challenge black art, things did not go as planned. But the content of the play and its troubled production history proves just how much “Trouble in Mind” and its author should be celebrated as part of the canon.

In the play, Wiletta arrives for her role in “Chaos in Belleville” alongside a young black actor named John; an older black actor named Sheldon; a young black actress named Millie; and two white actors, Judy, a well-meaning but naive Yale graduate, and Bill, a neurotic actor. The play in the play is about a black man who dares to vote and is killed for it.

During rehearsals, Wiletta tries to give newcomer John advice on how to survive as a black actor in the company, but her own advice fails when white director Al Manners pushes her to perpetuate the stereotypes.

It’s a familiar storyline, a Childress met as a young actress in the 1944 Broadway production of “Anna Lucasta”. She based Wiletta on actress Georgia Burke, who appeared with her in this production. Like Wiletta, Burke had also played her fair share of mom roles, and she would later appear in the Broadway original “Porgy and Bess”.

Burke had issues with the director of “Anna Lucasta”, but Childress knew she only complained to her fellow black actors; when it came to white directors and producers, she kept quiet for the sake of her career.

In “Trouble in Mind,” Childress wrote a version of Burke that eventually had to speak out.

“Honey, don’t think so. You’re great until you start thinking, ”Al Manners told Wiletta during rehearsals. Perhaps this kind of condescending treatment was normal for black theater performers. Childress, however, was adamant.

“She was a woman of incredible integrity,” said Kathy Perkins, friend of Childress and editor of a large anthology of her plays. (She’s also the lighting designer for Roundabout’s production.) “She hated the saying ‘ahead of your time’. His thing is, people are not ahead of their time; they are just suffocated during their time, they are not allowed to do what they should be doing.

It was that integrity – or, more precisely, the time that stifled a great writer with integrity – that cost Childress Broadway. In an ironic echo of the play’s plot, Childress found herself at odds with the future director when “Trouble in Mind” was set to premiere on Off Broadway. Not wanting to move, she took over as co-director, with actress Clarice Taylor, who played the role of Wiletta.

The play premiered on November 5, 1955 at the Greenwich Mews Theater and lasted 91 performances.

But this version is not the version we know today.

The white producers were worried about the end of the play, which they considered too negative. According to Perkins, as a relatively new playwright, Childress was intimidated by these seasoned producers.

And then there was the rest of the cast and crew to think about. Childress was a strong advocate for unions and workers’ rights, and feared that removing the coin would cost everyone their jobs. So she conceded, ending reconciliation and racial harmony, although she argued it was unrealistic.

The New York Times hailed the play as “a fresh, lively, and cutting-edge satire” – except at the end. Childress has always regretted the change and said she would never compromise her artistic integrity again. So when “Trouble in Mind” was picked for Broadway with a happy ending and a new title (“So Early Monday Morning”), Childress declined. She would have been the first black playwright to see her work there; instead, that honor would go to Lorraine Hansberry four years later, for “A Raisin in the Sun”.

Childress, who died in 1994, never had the financial success or popular recognition that her work deserved during her lifetime. It’s a shame because she plays are works of merit. Many of his works, such as “Florence” (1949), “Wedding Band: A Love / Hate Story in Black and White” (1966) and “Wine in the Wilderness” (1969), are confrontational without being indulgent or moralizing. It’s not just about race, but also about gender, class and artistry, and inspires their audiences to address their own prejudices and misconceptions. (The New Audience Theater brings “Wedding Band,” an interracial love story set amid the 1918 flu pandemic, to Off Broadway this spring.)

And they are smart. The metastructure of “Trouble in Mind” makes Childress’s satire particularly poignant; it is both explicitly biting and subtly searing.

One of the reasons Childress is often left out of conversations about American canon is her style. In an essay in “The Cambridge Companion to African-American Theater”, historian and playwright Adrienne Macki Braconi calls Childress a “transitional” writer, unrecognized because her work reflects “the conventions of dramatic realism.”

“Critics often overlook their subtle variations on form, including innovations such as bold thematic content; assertive and complex female characters; and a focus on lower and middle class blacks, ”Macki Braconi wrote of Childress and the writer Eulalie Spence.

Sandra Shannon, a scholar of black theater and professor emeritus of African-American literature at Howard University, argued that Childress’s blend of naturalistic dialogue and social commentary placed her “at the top of her game” among late playwrights. 1940s and early 1940s. 1950s. Her plays, Shannon said, “raise awareness, just stop to go out and walk the streets.”

And La Vinia Delois Jennings, author of the 1995 book “Alice Childress” and distinguished professor of humanities at the University of Tennessee, noted the “dynamism” of Childress’s works, which so often feature black women taking the lead. to be able to. The stereotypical angry black woman trope is overturned, Jennings said, proving that anger can be “liberating – a force that brings about change.”

But for all of Childress’s dynamism, it still took over 60 years for her work to appear on a Broadway stage.

Charles Randolph-Wright, who will direct the Broadway production, said he has been considering the play for the big stage for more than a decade.

On June 20, 2011, a non-profit organization called Project1Voice hosted an event in which 19 theaters across the country gave readings of “Trouble in Mind”. Randolph-Wright conducted a Roundabout reading at the American Airlines Theater, which included Andre De Shields, Leslie Uggams, Bill Irwin and LaChanze, who will play the role of Wiletta in the full production at the same Broadway venue.

“I’ll never forget everyone who came up to me and said, ‘Did you rewrite that?’ and I was like, ‘No, she wrote that in 1955.’ And they said, “But you changed it -” I said, “No, I didn’t touch anything,” Randolph-Wright explained.

After all, more than half a century later, insiders and outsiders alike are still strongly clamoring for better performance.

“There was a false sense of progress. This progress has been piecemeal, ”Shannon said. “The same issues that Childress deals with, or dealt with in the 1950s with ‘Trouble in Mind’, have always bubbled beneath the surface. They never left.

In one scene from the play, Manners says, “I want the truth. What is the truth? The truth is just whatever you can get yourself to believe, that’s all. You must have integrity in your work.

Although the statement comes from a flawed character, the sentiment is Childress to the end. Perkins said that at the end of the day, Childress wouldn’t say she was writing for a white audience or a black audience; she wrote only for herself, and her main concern was the truth, in whatever form.

Randolph-Wright said he thought of John Lewis as he approached the room. “It’s a ‘good problem’,” he said, referring to the call to action made famous by the activist and congressman. “It agitates, it lights up, it makes people laugh, it’s entertaining.”

But he hopes this production is just the beginning – that audiences learn more about Childress’s work, and that she and other black writers will be more recognized for their contributions to the art form. Because this moment – after Black Lives Matter and “We See You, White American Theater,” and when seven new Broadway plays this fall are by Black Writers – is perfect for Childress, but also for Spence and Ed Bullins and Angelina Weld Grimké and others Black dramatists of yesterday and today.

So, will change really come this time around? The version of “Trouble in Mind” finally coming to Broadway ends inconclusive, not optimistic. The ending rejected by the producers of Childress in 1955 seems fair for now.


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