(Cover Photo: Allison Beauregard as "Judy," MaConnia Chesser as "Millie," Patrice Jean-Baptiste as "Wiletta," Davron S. Monroe as "Sheldon" and Barlow Adamson as "Al" from Alice Childress' "TROUBLE IN MIND" playing at the Lyric Stage in Boston, MA. until February 4, 2024. Photo Credit Nile Hawver)
By Kevin T. Baldwin
“Life is just a short walk from the cradle to the grave, and it sure behooves us to be kind to one another along the way."
- Alice Childress
Written by Alice Childress
Directed by Dawn M. Simmons
Cast Includes: Barlow Adamson* as "Al Manners," Patrice Jean-Baptiste* as "Wiletta," Allison Beauregard as "Judy Sears," Kadahj Bennett as "John Nevins," MaConnia Chesser*as "Millie Davis," Davron S. Monroe* as "Sheldon Forrester," Bill Mootos* as "Bill O’Wray," James Turner as "Eddie Fenton," Robert Walsh* as "Henry"
Additional Creative Team:
Scenic Design - Shelley Barish; Lighting Design - Deb Sullivan; Costume Design - Rachel Padula-Shufelt; Sound Design - Aubrey Dube; Props Artisan - Jennifer Butler; Production Stage Manager - Polly Feliciano*; Assistant Stage Manager - Olivia Tellier*
* Member of Actors’ Equity Association, the Union of Professional Actors and Stage Managers in the United States
January 12, 2024 through February 4, 2024
(Contact Box Office for Exact Times)
LYRIC STAGE OF BOSTON, 140 Clarendon Street, Boston, MA 02116
Contact the Box Office at # 617-585-5678 or go to lyricstage.com
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When the show premiered on Broadway in 2021, the play was advertised as "A Broadway Debut 67 Years in the Making" which should not be read as just some simple, gimmicky hyperbole.
It can also serve as an earnest reminder to us (all of us) that, no matter how far accurate representation has advanced, there is still a long way to go.
A pioneering African-American playwright, Childress directed the first production of "TROUBLE IN MIND" in November of '55. The author's subject matter is as relevant today as it was almost 70 years ago.
In an example of "life imitating art," Childress's play was a critical success but also became a lightning rod for those white investors completely focused on downplaying (i.e. "eliminating") the play's attempt at overcoming negative stereotype.
Supposedly, this was to better appeal to a larger (i.e. "whiter") audience.
Fortunately, and to her credit, Childress refused (i.e. "overcame").
Unfortunately, Childress passed in 1994, never seeing the ultimate Tony Award-winning Broadway debut of "TROUBLE IN MIND" in 2021.
With the best of intentions, a band of actors gather in 1955 America for the staging of a new play, an "anti-lynching" story entitled "Chaos in Belleville" which is about to make its Broadway debut.
However, as author Oscar Wilde once stated, "It is always with the best intentions that the worst work is done," and that is certainly proven here.
The "Belleville" play is written by a white author, never seen in the show, and a white director, Al Manners (Barlow Adamson) who is clearly focused on making the production a success, if only to help him financially through a bitter divorce.
Adamson gives a strong performance as the cantankerous, embittered, squarely focused director who could easily be seen as a one-note, stereotype racist patriarchal figure - which he is.
Only, in his mind, he does not see himself as such since the play he is attempting to stage is "anti-lynching." Therefore, from his perspective, he certainly should not be considered racist.
He feels his actors should, instead, consider him an "ally" - a director trying to stage an important show - for them - and be seen as a sort of "champion" for advancing a more positive narrative for his Black performers.
Yeah. They don't see it that way.
However, thanks to Adamson's portrayal, Manners is also seen as an intelligent artist with a clear vision of the playwright's work, even though it soon becomes apparent that it is a misguided vision.
(Photo: MaConnia Chesser as "Millie," Patrice Jean-Baptiste as "Wiletta" and James Turner as "Eddie" in a scene from Alice Childress' "TROUBLE IN MIND" playing at the Lyric Stage in Boston, MA. until February 4, 2024. Photo Credit Nile Hawver)
When Wiletta (Patrice Jean-Baptiste), a Black actress, is cast in the play, Wiletta is squarely focused on the job at hand in front of her, and one which allows her to make her big Broadway debut.
Jean-Baptiste is compelling as an actress conflicted by her struggle to be on the Broadway stage yet is fully cognizant of what she feels compelled to do as a Black performer in order to keep her job.
She shares her career experiences with younger Black actor John (Kadahj Bennett) who has come of age in a different era than Wiletta and is more inclined to freely speak his mind.
However, John's views expressed are considered far more "dangerous" - prompting Wiletta to advise the young actor to suppress them so that he, too, might keep his job.
By the end, though, as more details of the script being staged emerge, thanks to the gripping, layered performance by Jean-Baptiste, Wiletta and John soon find their roles reversed.
Bennett serves the material well as both a strong and calming presence as the show progresses.
Supporting Wiletta's position with their own career perspectives are Wiletta's equal and occasional competitor, Millie (MaConnia Chesser), and older actor, Sheldon (Davron S. Monroe).
Both Chesser and Monroe are excellent as the veteran performers, who only see the payday in front of them and don't seek to rock the boat nor do anything in any way that will prevent them from a payday that is few and far between for Black actors of this era.
For their own personal reasons, like Wiletta, if they are relegated to and must play negative stereotypes, they will do so as long as there is a check at the end of the run.
Then she and her fellow Black castmates read the entire play and soon uncover all-too-familiar negative stereotypes - many in keeping with the entertainment of America's pre-Civil Rights era, with one notable exception: betrayal.
(Photo: Davron S. Monroe as "Sheldon," MaConnia Chesser as "Millie," Allison Beauregard as "Judy," Patrice Jean-Baptiste as "Wiletta," and Kadahj Bennett as "John" in a scene from Alice Childress' "TROUBLE IN MIND" playing at the Lyric Stage in Boston, MA. until February 4, 2024. Photo Credit Nile Hawver)
When the content involves a pivotal moment where a Black family member sacrifices another, Wiletta begins to recall all the roles she has played up until this moment and takes a moral stand, even though knowing such a stand will not only negatively impact her but her fellow Black actors, as well, risking their collective livelihood.
Even with the moral support shown by fellow actors Judy (Allison Beauregard) and Bill (Bill Mootos), and the sympathies extended by stage manager Eddie (James Turner) and elderly stage hand Henry (Robert Walsh), being white, none can relate.
As Sheldon is the only one in the cast to have actually seen a lynching take place during his lifetime, Monroe renders a stirring monologue which none will soon forget, just before Jean-Baptiste takes complete control of the show's entire second half, seemingly channeling Childress' herself.
Wiletta views both her role in the play and the play itself as taking a big step backward in the portrayal of Black representation while elevating the supposed self-proclaimed "allies" of African Americans.
The performances of the supporting characters were well executed, but the Childress' script doesn't allow much for additional backstory development for all the supporting characters, in particular Judy, Bill and Eddie.
Walsh is utterly charming as Henry while Beauregard and Mootos as Judy and Bill are thrust into roles of the uninitiated, naïve to their fellow Black actors' plight. Turner is terrific as Eddie who tries his best to serve as a liaison between everyone involved (to varying degrees of success).
(Photo: Allison Beauregard as "Judy," MaConnia Chesser as "Millie," Patrice Jean-Baptiste as "Wiletta," Davron S. Monroe as "Sheldon" and Barlow Adamson as "Al" in a scene from Alice Childress' "TROUBLE IN MIND" playing at the Lyric Stage in Boston, MA. until February 4, 2024. Photo Credit Nile Hawver)
At the beginning of the play, a ghost light is seen, standard practice while a theatre lies dormant, awaiting the next show to begin.
It is also fitting because what unfolds in Childress' "TROUBLE IN MIND" are ghosts, illuminating the struggles of Black actors who took on roles which were reprehensible.
In 1955, there was no "representation" - the word, in today's context, was not even used, never uttered - and any "allies" were most likely restricted by their own prejudices if not the prejudices of others.
These Black actors struggled, taking on roles which no one should have been forced to take. Yet they did so in order that there would be better roles and better representation offered later.
"TROUBLE IN MIND" also shines a light on the fact that the struggle continues.
The set design is basic but well utilizes the entire Lyric space, giving us the sense we are sitting in, ourselves immersed in these confrontational rehearsals. All technical elements, in particular the area of costumes, appear to be perfectly in sync with the time period.
Up next at the Lyric Stage Company beginning February 23rd comes "THIRST" by Ronán Noone. For more information or tickets, contact the Lyric Stage Box Office at # 617-585-5678 or go to lyricstage.com.
Approximately two hours, 20 minutes with one intermission
Kevin T. Baldwin is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association (ATCA)
ABOUT THE SHOW
In Alice Childress' "TROUBLE IN MIND" a Black actress makes her 1955 Broadway debut in a backstage story crackling with wit and startling revelations.
It’s 1955, and after enduring indignities and lost opportunities, Wiletta Mayer, a seasoned Black actress, is finally making her Broadway debut.
Written by a white playwright, her star vehicle is the allegedly progressive “Chaos in Belleville,” which turns out to be anything but.
Leading a cast of both younger and experienced actors, Wiletta challenges not only the soft racism of her white director but also the veiled prejudice that limits her aspirations and success.
With warmth, humor, and sharp insight, this moving backstage look at identity and stereotypes cracks open searing truths about the American theater that remain heartbreakingly contemporary.
Founded in 1974 and in residence at 140 Clarendon Street since 1991, THE LYRIC STAGE OF BOSTON is Boston’s oldest resident theatre company. Our mission is to produce and present live theatre in Greater Boston with an intimate approach that promotes inclusivity and connection. THE LYRIC STAGE leads an effort to integrate live theater and theater education into the lives of all residents of greater Boston.
140 Clarendon Street
Boston, MA. 02116
BOX OFFICE: 617-585-5678