LaChanze Leads Late Triumph – Deadline
Sixty-four years late and right on time, Alice Childress’s wise and moving comedy-drama behind the scenes Problem in mind debuts on Broadway tonight, and to call the play premonitory would be an understatement. The strange rings more true.
With a star tour of LaChanze which takes pride of place in an already formidable theatrical season in its roster of performances, Problem in mind takes a behind-the-scenes look at the racism, coded prejudice, self-flattery, sexism, and built-in bigotry that Broadway has always claimed to avoid.
Childress, who died in 1994, knew better, and her ideas feed Problem in mind. First premiered to acclaim Off Broadway in 1955, the play, about a black actress in a big Broadway play who must choose between truth and safety, was chosen by producers to open on Broadway in 1957 – if only Childress was writing a more upbeat and forgiving film. end. She chose the truth.
Located in a theater during rehearsals of the play in the play, Problem in mind details the interactions between the actors – a predominantly black set of sophisticated, global actors playing stereotypical characters in the fictional genre of the White Savior who, for decades, would pass for enlightened tolerance. Atticus Finch was knocking on the door.
LaChanze plays Wiletta Mayer, the actress in the midst of a successful career as maids and kind-hearted country folk. Whatever youthful idealism and artistic ambition it once had, they have been worn away by big roadblocks and micro-aggressions. Here, she trades knowing beards with another black actress from the show, her old friend Millie Davis (Jessica Frances Dukes):
Millie: The last show I was on, I wouldn’t even tell my relatives. All I did was shout âLord have mercy! “
for almost two hours each night.
Wiletta: Yeah, but you did, so shhh. She played all the flowers in the garden. Let’s see, what was your
name in this TV mess? Gardenia! It was Gardenia! âIn no way was she Magnolia. The chrysanthemum was another …
Millie: And you made the jewelryâ¦ Crystal, Pearl, Opal!
Their new piece, Chaos in Belleville, it is not better. Wiletta plays the mother of a fiery young civil rights activist whose work angered a racist lynch mob in a small town. The son is played by John Nevins (Brandon Micheal Hall), an inexperienced drama school graduate, whose talent and charisma led him on a quick path to Hollywood (the character is likely based on the friend of Childress, Sidney Poitier).
Wiletta quickly takes a liking to the young man – both are from the same hometown – and tries to acquaint him with Broadway manners.
“Whites can’t stand unhappy blacks,” she said, “So laugh, laugh when it’s not funny at all.” After John shyly emphasized the ‘Uncle Tommish’ tone, Wiletta said, âIt’s Tommishâ¦ but they do it more than us. They call it a ‘yes’. Either you do it and you stay, or you don’t and you go out. “
The particular man Wiletta warns John about is their star director Al Manners (Michael Zegen, who goes bankrupt – and succeeds – in portraying the pompous and almost sadistic extremes of a theatrical tyrant, with no sign of the lie. that he portrays in The wonderful Mrs. Maisel), a Hollywood hit (which may or may not be investigated by HUAC) making its Broadway debut with this big, important race relations play. Despite a reputation as a West Coast liberal, Manners is nothing but a hypocrite, a walking, talking tower of condescension who demeans women, snubs his black cast (except, ostensibly, the future movie star) and berates his staged assistant with a cruelty that leaves nothing to Scott Rudin (I said this play was premonitory).
This beautifully perfected production of the Roundabout Theater Company, from the perfect period designs of naturalistic setting by Arnulfo Maldonado and costumes by Emilio Sosa, to the subtle changes in lighting design by Kathy A. Perkins that reflect moods changes of the play and its characters. Charles Randolph Wright conducts with a beat and beat that combines behind-the-scenes realism with the dramatic rhythms of Wiletta’s awakening power.
Problem in mind makes a wonderful showcase for a great cast. In addition to LaChanze, Zegen, Hall and Dukes, there is Chuck Cooper as Sheldon, a brilliant aging actor whose easy-going demeanor hides a traumatic past; Simon Jones as Henry, the old Irish doorman who shares a bond with Wiletta; Alex Mickiewicz as stage manager; Don Stephenson as a white soap opera actor portrayed as the beneficent savior in a story not his own; and Danielle Campbell as Judy, another drama school graduate but whose whiteness and privileged past blind her to racism (though that can’t protect her from the director’s misogyny). Among the cast, only Campbell seemed to still find his place in the revised performance, becoming a bit cartoonish at first before finding the slowly awakening sense of justice in his character.
Director Wright strikes a graceful balance between the presentation of the ensemble, the repetition of all the moving parts, and the key moments that Childress writes for his characters. Some notable examples of the latter: the impromptu impressions of Wiletta on all the stock, the racist stereotypes that black actors of the time were forced to portray; Sheldon’s heart-wrenching description of witnessing a lynching as a child; and director Al-I’m-not-racist’s defensive speech in which he almost – almost – makes a convincing argument in favor of the best possible compromises.
The white director’s inability to truly grasp the true cost of such a compromise – a cost that will be borne entirely by black actors – will force Wiletta to make a decision that will change her life. Will she play the role that betrays the very humanity of black women, or will she take a stand even if it threatens not only her own livelihood, but also the careers and financial health of her friends and colleagues?
We know what Childress would decide in a sadly comparable choice after writing this play, and we know what it cost him: an almost 70-year wait for Problem in mind take its rightful place in the Broadway canon. This Roundabout production completes the journey.
Problem in mind opens tonight at the American Airlines Theater on Broadway. The limited commitment runs until January 9, 2022.