A hit Off Broadway that year, Alice Childress’ play was expected to transfer, and if it had she would have been the first Black woman to have a show on Broadway. It did not, for reasons that echo in the work itself. Taking on racism and sexism in the theater, even with a chaser of comedy, was out of step with its era. Brought back exactly as it was written when Eisenhower was president, the Roundabout Theatre Company presentation, at the American Airlines Theatre, is in sync with current thinking…and shows how much work remains to be done.
Its three acts condensed to two, the show is likably foursquare and old fashioned in style, with not a hair out of place. Director Charles Randolph-Wright respects the text, and encountering the piece for the first time is like opening a time capsule and finding surprising contents. Amidst the artful clutter of Arnulfo Maldonado’s backstage set we meet Wiletta, a performer brought to blazing life by Tony Award winner LaChanze. No one’s fool, Wiletta observes all the niceties expected of a Black performer in a white-controlled business, and rehearsing a new show she advises John, a Black stage newcomer (Brandon Micheal Hall), to laugh, be accommodating, and say he was in Porgy and Bess as a child to pad his resume. “White folks can’t stand unhappy Negroes,” she says. Wiletta is thoroughly assimilated into what’s expected of a typically Black actor in a typically Black part in an ostensibly “Black” show written, produced, and directed in stereotypical fashion by whites who pat themselves on the back for doing something “worthy” in the nascent civil rights period. But she yearns for something more substantial and respectful than yet another production where her simple-minded character, inevitably named after a flower or a jewel, idles in first gear. (When she sings it’s like a facet of her true talent has earned temporary reprieve from its bottle.)
Alas, “Chaos in Belleville” looks to be more of the same, ultimately obliging Wiletta’s mammy character to ask her son to sacrifice himself to a lynch mob to restore order after he dared cast a vote. (There are, we are told, limits on how much Black autonomy a white audience can handle.) Wiletta’s troubled conscience ensures chaos during the rehearsal period. Envious costar Millie (Jessica Francis Dukes) would love to give her ever-present bandanna a rest but doesn’t want to rock the boat. Nor does the imperious Sheldon (Tony winner Chuck Cooper), who delivers fatuous bromides with stentorian aplomb. Increasingly unable to assuage Wiletta the show’s hotheaded director, Al (Michael Zegen)–who has a yen for the play’s ditsy if well-meaning white ingenue, Judy (Danielle Campbell)–sadistically plays the cast off one another, exposing racial fault lines that remain raw today. The show’s barbed humor acts as a glove, hiding the fist beneath. As we congratulate ourselves on dealing openly with problems of representation we must acknowledge Trouble in Mind for punching through long ago.
Underscored by Nona Hendryx the play has been given a velvety-smooth production, paced by LaChanze’s conflicted performance, a star turn that splits off in several brilliant directions as Wiletta endangers her precarious livelihood by being “difficult” instead of being patronized. If the great Chuck Cooper missed a laugh in the text it won’t escape him for long…then he brings us up short with Sheldon’s powerful experience of a crime he experienced first-hand, a memory that no amount of demeaning gigs can bury. The current renaissance in Black playwriting has produced some compelling, ambiguous, obscure work; it’s good to see that side by side with a play that tells it like it was, so the past can inform the present.
What Wiletta was looking for was something like A Raisin in the Sun, which in 1959 became the first Broadway play from a Black woman playwright (directed, in another first, by a Black man). Childress, who died in 1994, won over a generation of readers with young adult novels like A Hero Ain’t Nothing but a Sandwich but thanks to this fine staging we now see that she laid a foundation that so much has been built on. It is, to paraphrase the late civil rights leader John Lewis, good Trouble.