Review: LaChanze and Chuck Cooper marvel at Alice Childress’ monumental problem in the mind
I left the American Airlines Theater on Sunday afternoon with the word “monumental” in my head. Thinking of Charles Randolph-Wright’s new love production of the 1955 Alice Childress comedy-drama Problem in mind, and especially the performances of winners Tony LaChanze and Chuck Cooper, I just couldn’t shake the idea that I had witnessed a theatrical legend in the making. Hope you too.
This is normal, since Problem in mind has been the stuff of theatrical mythology almost since its inception. The play is about a black actor who refuses to compromise his integrity in the face of his white director even if it means sacrificing a major opportunity. In real life, Childress was forced to revise the ending of her play at the behest of her white producer, who threatened to cancel her off-Broadway premiere if she didn’t make the conclusion a little more upbeat. Childress would continue to regret her decision, and when the work was chosen for Broadway a few years later, provided she made other revisions that continued to diminish her anti-racist stance, she refused. The Broadway Race never took place, and Problem in mind roughly spent the next six decades in library stacks, Childress herself becoming one of the great, albeit relatively unknown, playwrights of the 20th century.
This context, usefully provided via a pre-show announcement, goes a long way in shaping what we’re about to see. A chilling look at racism in the theater industry, Problem in mind stars LaChanze as Wiletta Mayer, a middle-aged actress who has spent her career in subordinate roles and now hopes the anti-lynching drama Chaos in Belleville will provide it with a more substantial share. However, the game is against her and her co-stars (Cooper and Jessica Frances Dukes as veterans Sheldon and Millie, and Brandon Micheal Hall as newcomer John); the play is written and directed by white people. When Wiletta defends her belief that the goal of the job is a lie, why would a black mother send her son to face a mob of lynchers? – the ensuing row with patronizing director Al Manners (Michael Zegen) threatens to doom the entire production.
Some will call Alice Childress premonitory, but what is foreknowledge when the events described have been happening for centuries? That’s what makes this dynamite game even sadder – after sixty years, Problem in mind Couldn’t have been more timely if it had been written yesterday, and events, especially the climactic argument between Wiletta and Al, are as explosive and subversive today as they were in the 1950s. Randolph-Wright understands this and, more importantly, he skillfully brings the play’s slyly changing tone to life. Its cast, complemented by Don Stephenson, Danielle Campbell, and Simon Jones, deliver the comedic aspects without pushing, and when it comes to the truth, it tears your heart to pieces.
Case in point, a mid-show monologue where Sheldon explains what it was like to witness a lynching and how that particular scar never heals. It’s an amazing piece of writing, beautifully lit by Kathy A. Perkins, which Cooper delivers with tears streaming down her face and hunched body, the words filled with poignant, grace and trauma.
The same goes for the work of LaChanze. Adorned in Emilio Sosa’s vibrant costumes, her work is particularly vulnerable. As you walk through the backstage of the theater created by set designer Arnulfo Maldonado, you can see the fear behind her eyes, the muscles she forces to make her smile. She turns Wiletta into a human pressure cooker that’s filled a little too high – you know she’s going to explode, it’s just a matter of when. Both of these performances are absolutely masterful and are some of the most exciting actors I’ve seen since the theater reopened last summer. I will think of them for a long time.
The child did not live to see Problem in mind finally get to Broadway – she passed away in 1994. But she’s there in her own way. This play continues a conversation about the fairness that needs to be done, especially in an environment like the theater, where so often people are abused in their quest to make great art. And although it was written in 1955, there is nothing out of fashion about it.