Trouble in Mind (c) Joan Marcus
Theater: Trouble in Mind
Roundabout Theatre Company
Premise: It’s the 1950s and actress and star Wiletta Mayer (LaChanze) is starting rehearsals for a Broadway play called “Chaos in Belleville,” which is the first play, according to the white director Al Manners (Michael Zegen), to take an anti-lynching stance and put the politics of it all on stage. Other black actors in the play are John (Brandon Michael Hall), who is making his Broadway debut in the show, an experienced actress Millie (Jessica Frances Dukes) and Sheldon (Chuck Cooper), a veteran actor who knows exactly what the white theater creatives want. In the process of rehearsing the play, Wiletta begins to question her character’s actions (while it may be dealing with lynching, the black characters still act and talk in a very stereotypically exaggerated way), something the white director and the other cast members (including two white actors) have to confront as well.
My Take: What a refreshing surprise to have a revival of a play that hasn’t been done to death. Alice Childress was an amazing black playwright who accomplished a lot of firsts in her life, including being the first woman of color to win an Obie for this play. So, it was quite a thrill to actually see one of her plays, especially one that brings up a lot of hard-hitting questions about representation that are still relevant today. The actors all inhabit their characters almost too well as the conversational dialogue occasionally gets lost in the rat-a-tat-tat delivery in the huge American Airlines Theater. I love Micheal Zegen (“The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel”), but his portrayal of the egomaniacal director is so convincing there’s no way the audience will ever see his side of any argument. The play itself has some odd plot machinations and spends too much time having fun with its rehearsal slice of life when more time could have been spent with the depths of the many issues. Still, for a play written in 1954, this is a fascinating time capsule and a sad reflection of how much hasn’t changed.
VIP: LaChanze. LaChanze is a force of nature in this role. Her anger at what she has to deal with to just do her job first simmers but then rightly explodes by the end in a way that’s convincing and ferocious. As a Tony-winning musical theater actress, you can’t take your eyes off of her whenever she’s singing, but this is her rare foray into plays, and the same can be said here (although she does get to sing a spiritual in the play to sate her musical fans).
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