Broadway satire on race and showbiz

In a Broadway season dominated by a ton of so-new plays about issues that make the headlines, one of the best has already reached retirement age.

“Trouble in Mind,” which opened Thursday night at the American Airlines Theater, was written in 1955 by Alice Childress, but has never made it to Broadway until now.

He was scheduled to go to Midtown 66 years ago, but the behind-the-scenes satire of a cast repeating a poorly-written black drama was considered too edgy for white audiences at the time.

Theater critic

2 hours and 10 minutes, with an intermission. At the American Airlines Theater, 227 W. 42nd St.

Child’s Play still has a lion’s bite six decades later, and unlike many of its current Broadway neighbors, is a rock-solid, ferociously funny and tense piece of writing.

And, can you believe it, there are some real fleshy characters talking to each other! My friends, this basic principle of dramatic writing is becoming increasingly rare.

The “Trouble” begins with the first rehearsal of a new play in the South. The frontman is Wiletta (LaChanze), a veteran performing artist who has stayed on top by pleasing her bosses, even when it hurts. She is joined by her girlfriend Millie (Jessica Frances Dukes, hilarious), newcomer John (Brandon Micheal Hall) and faithful Sheldon (Chuck Cooper).

Also in the cast of the mock play are two awkward white co-stars – ingenuous Judy (Danielle Campbell) and actor Bill (Don Stephenson) – all led by a silly director named Al (Michael Zegen).

During the first act, we get to know the play, which is supposed to be groundbreaking and important, but is actually full of black stereotypes: “Mammys”, maids, pretty much a lot of flat characters who are miles away from home. reality.

Millie (Jessica Frances Dukes), left, and Wiletta (LaChanze) play seasoned Broadway actors in “Trouble in Mind.”
Jeanne Marcus

Childress reveled in the humor of this one. There’s a steamy exchange between Wiletta and Millie about the roles they’ve been forced to take over the years.

“She played all the flowers in the garden!” Wiletta says. “Gardenia, Magnolia, Chrysanthemum.”

Millie replies: “And you made the jewelry: Crystal, Pearl, Opal!

One scene later, the director shouts for his actors: “Petunia and Ruby!

The whole room is filled with crackling spirit and “Noises Off” showbiz antics. But, like the works of Edward Albee, Childress’s jokes turn to beards and beards turn to scorching eruptions.

In the second act of director Charles Randolph-Wright’s show, our laughter gives way to stunned silence as Wiletta and the director clash.

LaChanze’s transition from a shrugging performer who will do whatever his director says offensive to an outspoken critic of the play is fascinating.

“Trouble in Mind” also marks the Broadway debut for Dukes, who has appeared off Broadway for years and on Netflix’s “Ozark”. She’s a scream like Millie and gives her a sparkling but cutting energy with perfect timing that is reminiscent of Betty White.

Childress is the star, however. His play is a lesson in construction, in the fiery game of satire and seriousness. “Trouble in Mind” is just plain good. What a pity she didn’t live to see him find his audience on Broadway.

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