Director Charles Randolph-Wright is the type of creative we all can use in our lives. Meaning he’s invested in getting it right, even if it takes 15 years, with is exactly the amount of time it’s taken to get Alice Childress’ brilliant play TROUBLE IN MIND to Broadway. And in listening to his heart, and the voice of the dearly departed playwright, her play arrived — on Broadway —in 2021 instead of 1955 and he didn’t change a single word, and used her original stage direction. There is no question in my mind that this is divinely appointed.
The Roundabout Theater Company’s (Todd Haimes, Artistic Director/CEO), TROUBLE IN MIND currently playing at the American Airlines Theatre until January 9, 2022 stars Tony® & Emmy® Award winner LaChanze as “Wiletta Mayer,” Michael Zegen as “Al Manners,” Chuck Cooper as “Sheldon Forrester,” Danielle Campbell as “Judy Sears,” Jessica Frances Dukes as “Millie Davis,” Brandon Micheal Hall as “John Nevins,” Simon Jones as “Henry,” Alex Mickiewicz as “Eddie Fenton,” and Don Stephenson as “Bill O’Wray.”
Under Charles Randolph-Wright, the design team includes Arnulfo Maldonado (Sets), Emilio Sosa (Costumes), Kathy A. Perkins (Lights), Dan Moses Schreier (Sound), Cookie Jordan (Hair & Wigs), and Nona Hendryx (Original Music).
Broadway is a business. The lights above the marques, that beckon theatergoers to come inside, well, it cost money. And sixty years ago, a white producer (Edward Eliscu) thought Childress’s “Trouble in Mind” was a commercial risk because the play did a deep dive into stereotyping, discrimination, and liberalism highlighting how racism shaped the stories and characters of the American theater.
Radical, right? This is activism, and remember, the play was first performed in 1955, a year that sadly marked the brutal murder of Emmett Till, the arrival of James Baldwin’s collection of essays “Notes of a Native Son” and the defiance of Rosa Parks’s refusal to give up her seat to a White passenger on a Montgomery, Ala., bus which was the fire, that lit the match for the Montgomery Bus Boycott.
The production of “Trouble in Mind” opened on Nov. 4, 1955, at the Greenwich Mews Theatre, located in the basement of the Village Presbyterian Church and Childress directed the play, which ran for 91 performances and received rave reviews and caught the eye of Broadway producer Edward Eliscu.
The play was scheduled to come to Broadway, in 1957, and after casting the play and rehearsing, for weeks, the producers of the 1955 production threaten to cancel the show if Childress did not provide a happy ending. But Childress had a backbone and she refused to make those changes because it would have weakened its anti-racism message and because she would not bend, the producers lost interest.
Broadway would not feature a play written by an African American woman until the late Lorraine Hansberry’s “A Raisin in the Sun” which opened in 1959 at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre.
If Ms. Childress had agreed to the producers’ terms — then — she would have been the first African-American to have a play on Broadway (aka the Great White Way).
Fast-forward to 2021 and it’s clear that Childress’s play has stood the test of time. TROUBLE IN MIND is truth to power.
Here is what TROUBLE IN MIND director Charles Randolph-Wright had to share about keeping Alice Childress’ dream alive.
QUESTION: I attended a special matinee performance for Broadway performers of TROUBLE IN MIND and one of the things that blew me away was how the performers were connecting. I heard a conversation about job opportunities.
CHARLES RANDOLPH-WRIGHT: That was a very special performance. I said to Todd Haimes [Artistic Director/CEO of the Roundabout Theater Company] what if we cancel the preview and invite the Broadway working community because they don’t get an opportunity to see plays because they are working
Q: It was beyond moving and I have to thank the publicist (Alana Karpoff at Polk & Company) for extending the invitation. I had tingles going up and down my spine.
CRW: Alice Childress is one of our greatest playwrights and she’s never received her due, and her dream was to have a show on Broadway and it never happened in her lifetime.
Q: What an amazing tribute and I can’t help but feel that this production is being divinely led by the spirit of Ms. Alice.
CRW: I agree. On November 5, 1955, 66 years to the day TROUBLE IN MIND was previewed, off-Broadway, and it was a big success. Producers came down, as they do, and they demanded that she change it, and if she did, they would take it to Broadway. So Alice would have been the first African-American, female playwright on Broadway but she would not do the changes, that the producers wanted.
Q: She held her ground.
CRW: Alice Childress held her ground and when you see the play, you will understand the part that they wanted changed.
Q: Indeed. It’s so powerful. The power of no.
CRW: TROUBLE IN MIND is truth to power. Her vision to her was more important than her Broadway dream.
CRW: What I am so thrilled about is that we finally get to give her the dream she wanted, so badly.
Q: Charles Randolph-Wright you are a bad man. Did I read that you served on the Roundabout’s Board of Directors? How did you join the Board?
CRW: Yes and it was because of my play BLUE that premiered at Arena [Stage, in Washington, D.C.]. Todd [Haimes, Roundabout’s Artistic Director/CEO] made that happen.
Q: I’m in love with your tenacity because you’ve been working on TROUBLE IN MIND for a minute now. Share, my love.
CRW: It’s been fifteen years. First, I did a reading of the play before it became Roundabout Underground. I started a play reading series called Different Voices, like ten years ago with Jill Rafson, [Roundabout Associate Artistic Director], and we did a reading for a group called Project1VOICE started by Erich McMillan-McCall. All around the country, they do readings in Black theaters, and TROUBLE IN MIND was the first one. I convinced the Roundabout to do this at the American Airlines Theatre. It was amazing, really extraordinary and I thought, well, I did bring her play to Broadway for one night.
Q: You set the intention into the universe. That’s power, Charles.
CRW: I didn’t change a single word of her play. Every single word
is what she wrote in 1955, and now 66 years later, we still are dealing with what she wrote. Truth to power.
Q: Charles, this is divinely aligned.
CRW: I was obsessed with getting this play to Broadway to honor her.
Q: And you have. Tell me about the creative team behind TROUBLE IN MIND. I loved the lighting.
CRW. You have to interview Kathy A. Perkins because she’s the lighting designer and theatre historian and she’s been in the business for decades and has taught at major universities, designed lighting all over the world, and never got a shot on Broadway.
Q: Until now.
CRW: Until now but it keeps deeper. Before this Broadway season, there were only two Black lighting designers in Broadway history.
Q: Charles, did you say two. As in 1, followed by 2?
CWR: Two, and now were able to give Kathy this opportunity and she’s worked with Alice, so we have the added benefit of great insight.
Q: Again, Charles, divinely aligned.
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