Wiletta Mayer walks into the theater already knowing how things will go. Smartly dressed, attractive and middle-aged (don’t ask for a number, because “a woman that’ll tell her age will tell anything”), she is a veteran actress who’s played maids and mammies and knows how to cater to white directors and producers. You can call it “Uncle Tomming.” Or you can call it plain common sense. Either way, it’s a living.
Until enough is enough.
Alice Childress created Wiletta Mayer, the protagonist of her 1955 play, “Trouble in Mind,” to paint a realistic portrait of what it was to be Black in the theater industry. Or to be more accurate: She wanted to portray what it is to be Black in theater, because 66 years later, as the play opens on Broadway this month in a Roundabout Theater Company production , the words Childress wrote remain just as relevant.
And yet this author and play, a comedy-drama about an interracial cast rehearsing an anti-lynching play written by a white author and led by a white director, haven’t gotten their proper due in the decades since its premiere. Childress was supposed to be the first Black female playwright on Broadway, with a play critiquing the racism and misogyny of the theater industry.
Thanks to interfering white theatermakers and a Broadway unwelcoming to challenging Black art, things didn’t turn out as planned. But the content of the play, and its troubled production history, prove how rightly “Trouble in Mind” and its author should be celebrated as part of the canon. From left: Chuck Cooper, LaChanze, Danielle Campbell and Michael Zegen in “Trouble in Mind,” which will have its long-awaited Broadway opening night this month.Sara Krulwich/The New York Times In the play, Wiletta arrives for her part in “Chaos in Belleville” alongside a young Black actor named John; an older Black actor named Sheldon; a younger Black actress named Millie; and two white actors, Judy, a well-meaning yet naïve Yale graduate, and Bill, a neurotic character actor. The play within the play is about a Black man who dares to vote and is killed for it.
During rehearsals Wiletta tries to give the newcomer John tips on how to survive as a Black actor in the business, but her own advice fails when the white director, Al Manners, pushes her to perpetuate stereotypes.
It’s a familiar scenario, one Childress encountered herself as a young actress in the 1944 Broadway production of “Anna Lucasta.” She based Wiletta on the character actress Georgia Burke, who appeared with her in that production. Like Wiletta, Burke had also done her fair share of mammy roles, and she would later appear in the original Broadway “ Porgy and Bess .”
Burke had problems with the director of “Anna Lucasta,” but Childress knew her to complain only to her fellow Black actors; when it came to white directors and producers she kept quiet for the sake of her career.
In “Trouble in Mind,” Childress wrote a version of Burke who finally had to speak up.
“Darling, don’t […]