Since October, the actress has been performing the lead role of Wiletta Mayer in the Broadway debut of Childress’s 1955 play.
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“I started to scream but no sound come out … just a screamin’ but no sound …”
Alice Childress wrote those words in her 1955 play “Trouble in Mind,” which the Roundabout Theater Company produced on Broadway this fall, in a limited run that will end on Sunday. The backstage comedy-drama, about the rehearsal process for an anti-lynching play, tackles racism in the theater industry, and that quote sums up what Black Americans have historically experienced — a consistent outcry to be heard by the dominant society that refuses to listen.
In “Trouble in Mind,” I play Wiletta Mayer, a middle-aged actress who dreams of doing something “real grand … in the theater.” This is Wiletta’s first time as the lead in a play, not a musical. Surprisingly, this role in a play is a first for me as well, even though I have been performing in Broadway musicals for over 30 years. And it’s the perfect role, because of many of my career experiences: as an actress onstage, my length of time in this business, not having the opportunity to be considered a serious dramatic actress. I draw on all of them to step into Wiletta’s shoes.
Now I go to the American Airlines Theater six times a week to portray a character I first came to know in college. I get to feel her life experiences as my own. I get to convey the things so many Black actors have expressed, but, as Wiletta says, “You don’t want to hear.”
I first read “Trouble in Mind” — along with a wide range of works by Black American playwrights — as a student at Morgan State University in Maryland, one of our nation’s historically Black colleges and universities. Writers who used their plays as art and activism — Childress, Amiri Baraka, Nikki Giovanni, Gwendolyn Brooks and so many others — inspired me to become a performing artist. Studying their works ignited my ambition to delve as deep as a person can into the values that make an artist and activist. I wanted to feel their kind of power, their eloquence, and their courage. This courage, this fire that led Childress to produce such timeless words. In fact her play is being performed word-for-word in its original form.
Childress was born in Charleston, S.C., in 1916, and died in Queens in 1994. She wrote and produced plays for four decades. She put up “Trouble” Off Broadway in 1955, four years before Lorraine Hansberry made history by debuting “A Raisin in the Sun” on Broadway, and was the first playwright I ever read to show authentic conversations between Black Americans, things that are said about whites when whites aren’t around. She exposed a Black cultural way of speaking that we call code switching, which the Urban dictionary defines as customizing “style of speech to the audience or group being addressed.” Childress cleverly demonstrates this in “Trouble in Mind.” She gives the audience a peek into what we, as Black actors, must do to accommodate white audiences.
In the beginning of the play, Wiletta tells John, a young actor, how to act around white people, explaining there are certain things you must do:
WILETTA But don’t get too cocky. They don’t like that either. You have to cater to these fools too …
JOHN I’m afraid I don’t know how to do that.
WILETTA Laugh! Laugh at everything they say, makes ’em feel superior.
JOHN Why do they have to feel superior?
WILETTA You gonna sit there and pretend you don’t know why?
JOHN I … I’d feel silly laughing at everything.
WILETTA You don’t. Sometimes they laugh, you’re supposed to look serious, other times they serious, you supposed to laugh.
The stereotypes have changed over the years — now there’s the hyper-masculinity of Black men; the strong Black woman who doesn’t seem to have a need for vulnerability or tenderness; Black children whose innocence has been removed — but the same rules still apply.
“Trouble” was optioned for Broadway, but never opened there because Childress would not tone down the dialogue for the show’s white producers. The white director in the play, Al Manners, tells Wiletta, “The American public is not ready to see you the way you want to be seen because, one, they don’t believe it, two, they don’t want to believe it, and three, they’re convinced they’re superior.” I have also had white male directors debate with me about what a Black woman would say, feel, even how she would dress.
Childress was unapologetic about her intentions, even if it meant her work wouldn’t make it to Broadway in her lifetime. I have debated this with other artists, wondering whether she was even more brave than brilliant. But we agree that she was a truth teller, a soothsayer.
As a student and young actor, I was astonished that the canon of Black American writers and artists that so richly shaped my artistic life were mostly unknown and so poorly understood. The play’s director, Charles Randolph-Wright, the first Black director with whom I have worked as a leading actor on Broadway, shepherded this project for 15 years. He also read the play in college and fell in love with Childress’s unapologetic writing.
He is the champion of “Trouble in Mind.” Charles, who studied at Duke University and with the Royal Shakespeare Company in London, and danced with Alvin Ailey in New York, was told many times that he could not make this happen. It is as if, with her words in the play, Childress wrote directly to Charles six decades ago, “I’m sick of people signifyin’ we got no sense.” Charles wants to give her the voice she should have had before he and I were born.
In our many conversations, I am invigorated in speaking to him about Black representation in the entertainment industry. Working with a director who I feel lives in my head is thrilling. My private thoughts that I’m sometimes too shy to share, Charles boldly speaks them before I can even get them out. Much like Childress, Charles is committed to telling the truth in his work and in having multidimensional portrayals of Black people, not just the broad strokes we see. And quite frankly, we’re both tired of seeing these examples. In my own career, I’ve taken jobs I didn’t want to do, but I had to play these parts because I needed a job.
I get to work with a dedicated, resilient Black director, and a fearless, committed cast. Childress wanted to speak for the have-nots, the invisibles, and to share her eloquence with the Broadway community and universities across the world. She used her play about Black actors to explore the values of America. But some people weren’t ready, and so many people never got to hear her words. Now I proudly stand on her shoulders, opening my soul to her and teaching my daughters and other lovers of truth about her brilliance.
“Some live by what they call great truths,” Wiletta says in the play. “I’ve always wanted to do somethin’ real grand … in the theater … to stand forth at my best … to stand up here and do anything I want …”
And that’s exactly what Alice Childress did.
LaChanze won the Tony Award for best actress in a leading role in a musical in 2006 for “The Color Purple.” In 2019, LaChanze and her eldest daughter, Celia Rose Gooding, became one of the few pairs of mothers and daughters to perform on Broadway as leading actors in the same season.