Before Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun made its Broadway debut, Alice Childress was poised to become the first Black woman playwright with a Broadway play. Sadly, Childress' Trouble in Mind, a meta drama with a sharp message about racial stereotyping within show business— was not palatable enough for white directors of that time. Thus, the stage play was shelved due to Childress' unwillingness to water down her message and alter the production's ending. Nearly 70 years later, Childress' brainchild made its way to a Broadway stage for a three-month run. Most importantly, it's original ending remains in tact.
"We have a brilliant, beautiful Black woman playwright whose work should be classic, but because she spoke her truth in the '50s, she was not revered," LaChanze, Trouble in Mind's lead actress, told EBONY.
The veteran actress, born Rhonda LaChanze Sapp, was cast in the play's leading role during its October to January Broadway run and art most certainly reflects like in this metadrama. LaChanze breathes life into the role of Wiletta Mayer – a seasoned Black actress attempting to navigate a theater industry dominated by whites while pushing back against racial stereotyping.
"It really centers on the relationship between Black and white people in the '50s and the stereotypes that Black actors and actresses have to play," LaChanze shared of the Roundabout Theater Company production. "It addresses race, relationships between Black and whites and how we as Black people have to code switch to make ourselves more appealing to the dominant culture."
The Tony Award-winning actress didn't have to look far for inspiration. "I definitely drew from my experiences with my white directors," added the veteran actress, whose theater career spans 35 years. "Sadly, this type of thing still exists in this industry where we have the white gaze on Black life and they believe that they know more about the Black experiences than we, as Black actors, do."
By all accounts, Childress should be canonized for her contributions to theater and American literature, LaChanze reasons. The self-taught playwright did not go to college to study theater. Instead, she immersed herself in the arts by way of a Harlem-based drama group. "She should be up there with all of the other classic playwrights who get attention," said the actress. "But because she was a Black female who had the courage to speak truth, she was not revered. As a Black culture, we need to know who she is."
"What Alice Childress has been able to very brilliantly and cleverly expose is how we have had to do this for so long and yet we've been able to navigate this space by code switching and accommodating the dominant culture with accepting these roles that are stereotypical," LaChanze went on to say of Childress. "In her play, she challenges that authority by saying, You're not even viewing me as a human being. You're viewing me as a commodity to be used to your benefit."
Though Childress nor her direct descendants were around to physically witness Trouble in Mind's Broadway run, LaChanze believes that the iconic writer and actress was present in spirit.
"I believe that she is always around us. This is her baby. One of the things that our brilliant director Charles Randolph Wright said is that we are her children," shared LaChanze. "It's fascinating that a Black woman had the courage to say this in 1955. Even today, audience members have a hard time hearing the truth that Alice laid down and I love saying it every night."
LaChanze's connection to Trouble in Mind runs deep. Not only because the content of the stage play appears to mimic her professional experiences in many ways, but also, due to her commitment to honoring Childress' legacy.
"Everything that I do related to this play, I am doing in her honor," LaChanze passionately added. "We need to know more about who she is as a champion of the arts."