This original production was directed by Childress and her longtime friend and sometimes co-producer Clarice Taylor. Taylor also played the starring role of Wiletta Mayer. Childress credits Taylor with the opportunity for this production, as it was Taylor who discovered that the Mews had an available slot in their 1955-56 season.
In an article on the Greenwich Mews Theatre, a 200-seat theatre at 141 West 13th Street, Joey Rodriguez describes how it “was led by Stella Holt from 1952 to 1967...[who] encouraged the production of works written by people of color. She would produce the work of many leading Black writers including Langston Hughes, Loften Mitchell, and William Branch. At the time the Greenwich Mews Theatre was one of the only theaters producing shows with integrated casts.”
The challenges of mounting Trouble in Mind presented themselves when another producer, a white man, insisted the ending be changed from its somewhat ambiguous, melancholic ending to a happier one for the audiences' comfort. In fact, he threatened to cancel the run if Childress didn’t make these changes. Childress relented in order to keep the production moving forward; she changed the ending. According to Childress, in an interview for The Playwright’s Art: Conversations with Contemporary American Dramatists:
I knew I was doing the wrong thing, but at the same time I shakily felt, “Maybe I could be wrong.” When everyone around you is saying, “This is wrong,” you can grow uncertain. They may be right – or wrong...When you hear “We’re not going to do it” and “We’re going to close down early because of one thing,” and all the actors have studied and learned their parts, you don’t know if you have the right to snatch the play.
When The New York Times review came out, it was the ending with which they took exception: “Miss Childress...has some witty and penetrating things to say...But it is all done with good humor and, except for the last ten or fifteen minutes, manages to avoid any impassioned sermonizing.”
While the show was at the Mews, it was optioned for Broadway. This option, though, also came with requests for more rewrites. Childress rewrote Trouble in Mind for two years in continued attempts to satisfy the producers, who were still concerned about how white audiences would respond to the play. Childress recalls that after two years of rewrites, she “couldn’t recognize the play one way or the other.” Eventually, she made the difficult decision to stop rewriting, and the negotiations for the transfer broke down completely. According to dramaturg Mark Perry (in his notes for a 2015 production of the show): “Burned by the experience, she vowed never again to cave artistically to producer pressure. She went back to her original ending, but had lost some steam in promoting the play in the process. As a result, the first Broadway play by an African-American female would be 1959’s A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry.” It was not until Trouble in Mind was published that Childress chose to restore her original ending. It is this original ending that is a part of our production here at Roundabout.
For many years, although it appeared in some university theatres, Trouble in Mind was rarely produced professionally. Its production history includes a 1984 production in Chicago with the Kuumba Theatre and productions in Valencia Character Company in Orlando, Florida in 1990; Aurora Theatre Company, Berkeley, California in 2010; and Arena Stage, Washington, DC, in 2011. More recently, it has received productions at Two River Theater in New Jersey, Yale School of Drama in Connecticut, PlayMakers Rep in North Carolina, and Intiman Theatre in Seattle. In 2020, The Shaw Festival in Canada was scheduled to produce Trouble in Mind, though because of the pandemic, Trouble did not receive its Canadian premiere until this year.
Although it has been more than six decades since Trouble in Mind was to make its Broadway debut, the 2021 Roundabout Theatre Company production marks this show’s first appearance on Broadway.
As Alice Childress’s Trouble in Mind finally receives its due in the annals of Broadway history, one cannot help but examine the irony of the challenges this play has had over the years in relation to the content of the play itself.
At the center of Trouble’s story is Wiletta, a middle-aged Black American woman who has been in show business “more than 25 years” but is only just now getting the chance to play a leading role in a serious play on Broadway. She faces a difficult choice: do what the white director and writer demand, or stand up for herself and her community as a Black woman and risk losing her job.
On the page Wiletta (and many of the characters in the show) can be read as one-dimensional, stereotypical theatre people of the 1950s. Some creatives refer to Wiletta as tragic, some say she’s a “mammy,” and others consider her an “angry Black woman.” The challenge of this role is to find Wiletta’s nuance and her depth; to see the elements of stereotypical tropes Childress has included and to let those be creative departure points for an actor as opposed to a destination. When read closely, one can even begin to recognize parts of Alice Childress’s life and personality present in Wiletta.
Childress began her theatre career as an actress. She was often told she was too fair-skinned for certain roles; in fact, she was fired once for not being “Black enough.” Childress began writing plays because she felt the roles she wanted to play and the stories she wanted to tell, stories about the strong Black women she knew in her life, were not being produced. In Wiletta, one can see a character Childress herself would have liked to play. Wiletta’s ability to “play the game,” yet frustration at having to do so to succeed in her career, her strength, and her internal debate over whether to speak up for herself are all reminiscent of the life and career of Childress herself.
Alice Childress was a strong, compassionate, talented Black woman who chose her integrity over perceived success. Kathy A. Perkins, professor, scholar, friend of Childress, and lighting designer for Roundabout’s production, writes:
I asked Childress if she had any regrets about missing out on Broadway productions of her plays because she refused to make the changes demanded by producers. She admitted that it would have been wonderful to have had her plays on Broadway. But, she told me, it was more important to go to bed each night with a clear conscience and peace of mind.
The difficult choices Childress made throughout her career are choices many creative artists have to make on a daily basis. Sometimes it feels impossible to determine the best choice or the right choice, and the correct answer may seem unattainable. In 1980, Childress did a radio interview where she shared the following advice:
You’re going to be alone a lot of times when there is no advisor, no advice, and nowhere to go. I don’t think we ever have the exact right answer. And if we come upon it, it changes. Nothing will stand still long enough for it to remain the right answer. Step on some sand and it shifts….education should mean a constant seeking, not to run yourself crazy over the right answer, but where this answer leads. And I think it could possibly mean there’s some time for relaxation, the celebration of yourself.
Trouble in Mind raises many questions and does not give us all the answers. We must continue to seek and be led by each question and answer we encounter. And we must find time to celebrate and stay true to ourselves, just as Childress did during her lifetime.
Trouble In MindReturn to the Table of Contents and learn more.
|Bryer, Jackson R. The Playwright’s Art: Conversations with Contemporary American Dramatists. Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick, NJ. 1995.
Childress, Alice. Radio Interview. Pacifica Radio Archives, 7 April 1980.
Perkins, Kathy A. ed. Selected Plays by Alice Childress. Northwestern University Press, Evanston, Il., 2011.
Perry, Mark. “Who’s Afraid of Alice Childress.” Drama Circle. 2015.
Rodriguez, Joey. “The Village Presbyterian Church Helps Gives Birth to an Off-Broadway Spanish Revolution.” Village Preservation Society, 22 Jan. 2021.
Estate of Alice Neel, David Zwirner. “Alice Childress Didn't Defang Her Plays, and Producers Said No.” Vulture, 8 Jan. 2020.
A.G. “Play in Village Is Well Worth the Trip.” The New York Times, 5 Nov. 1955.