When LaChanze walks onstage in the first few moments of Trouble in Mind, two things happen simultaneously. The first is a thunderous applause from audiences seeing the Tony winner (looking radiant in a gorgeous purple coat) in the spotlight. The second is a wide smile that grows grandly on the face of Wiletta, the character played by the Tony winner, as she arrives backstage for the first day of rehearsal, reveling in the splendor of the theatre she’s just entered before her castmates arrive.
It’s a look of pure joy—one that’s expressed by Wiletta but is no hard effort on LaChanze’s part. “It's been really wonderful,” says the performer of being back on stage after a nearly two-year year shutdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic. “I have to get used to using my voice as much again, but other than that, it's been really exciting.”
Alice Childress’ Trouble in Mind, now in previews at Roundabout Theatre Company’s American Airlines Theatre and opening November 18, begins as a Broadway company starts rehearsals for a play set in the South. Eventually, Wiletta feels changes are needed in the script to avoid a surface-level interpretation of Black people’s real-life experiences. As the artist and director begin to butt-heads, tempers flare and the collaborative process stumbles. It’s a piece about ego, race, and performance in the theatre industry. “It's just factual and truthful. She sets this conflict in a play-within-a-play, it's so brilliant and creative.”
A play that discusses racism in the theatre industry might sound like a heavy lift for both performers and audiences, especially given the reckoning that took place during the shutdown, but LaChanze says Trouble in Mind is for everyone. “It's not aggressive or in any way offensive,” she says. The work is a reality check of what it’s like to work in the industry—one that LaChanze was shocked to discover people didn’t know in NYC when she first arrived on the scene after studying Childress and other Black writers at the historically Black institution Morgan State University.
“One thing Alice Childress was able to do so brilliantly is speak the truth of each character's journey, and that was unexpected for all of us,” says LaChanze. “That she had the courage to not only speak my [and Wiletta’s] truth, but also that of the white male director, the young white female ingenue, the young Black male. [Childress] boldly spoke truth to power, which is why they wouldn't do it 65 years ago.”
Famously, Trouble in Mind premiered Off-Broadway in 1955 and was slated to premiere on Broadway but producers wanted Childress to make major changes to the script. At first, a few minor changes were allowed, but when the playwright realized they wanted her to tone down her comments, she simply pulled the plug on the project. Now, the production is using her script as originally written.
Thanks to the leadership of director Charles Randolph-Wright, LaChanze says there’s a lived-in quality to the performances that usually take much longer to develop. “He doesn't have you sit down and go through character discussions,” she explains of Randolph-Wright’s methods. “So, on the first day, we were up with scripts in hand walking through what we would imagine the show to be so we could get it in our bodies...which isn't standard when it comes to working on a play, but I like it because it puts the character in your body right away.” It’s a parallel audiences will see on stage at first with Al Manners, played by Michael Zegen, but the comparison stops there after the director on stage begins to play mind games with his company of actors.
While it took no time at all for LaChanze to settle in with Wiletta—they’re both leading ladies in a play, after all—the Tony winner says there are some differences. “Wiletta is a lot more courageous than I would have been at that time in my career [landing her first leading role], because she speaks truth to power in a way that I haven't always done. I've always just sort of acquiesced and gone along with whatever the plan was. She really speaks up for her character.”
LaChanze admits there are times when she’s done that herself, but it wasn’t received well. It’s a learning curve, but thankfully, “Charles Randolph-Wright is probably the most collaborative director I've worked with. There's nothing like it, I’m so happy.”