'Trouble in Mind' has its long-overdue Broadway premiere Playwright Alice Childress took an unflinching look at racism in society and in the theater with "Trouble in Mind" in 1955. Now in its overdue Broadway premiere, the play proves prescient and timely.

A prescient play about race in America has its long-overdue Broadway premiere

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

In 1955, a New York City production called "Trouble In Mind" was a play about a play. The play told a story of mostly Black actors putting on an anti-lynching play by white creators. "Trouble In Mind" started off-Broadway. It was supposed to transfer to the big time, a big theater on Broadway, but white producers insisted that the Black playwright provide a more upbeat ending. And playwright Alice Childress refused. Now, generations later, "Trouble In Mind" has debuted on Broadway for real. Here's reporter Jeff Lunden.

JEFF LUNDEN, BYLINE: Director Charles Randolph-Wright read "Trouble In Mind" in college. And for the past 40 years, it's been a passion project for him.

CHARLES RANDOLPH-WRIGHT: Being able to do these words now, these prescient words that she wrote so long ago, it's astounding at how relevant they are right now. It's also very depressing how relevant they are.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "TROUBLE IN MIND")

LACHANZE: (As Wiletta) You ever do a professional show before?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As John) Yeah, some off-Broadway and I've taken classes.

LACHANZE: (As Wiletta) Oh, don't let the man know that. They don't like us to go to school.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As John) Oh, well (laughter) - now, I...

LACHANZE: (As Wiletta) No, they want us to be naturals, you know, just born with the gift.

LUNDEN: Alice Childress was born in South Carolina in 1916, raised in Harlem and fell in love with the theater.

LACHANZE: She started as an actor, and she wanted to play roles that were representative of the people that she knew thoroughly, not just the broad strokes of the stereotypes of Black people that were being written at that time.

LUNDEN: LaChanze plays the lead role in "Trouble In Mind," an actress named Wiletta who struggles with the cliched part she has in the play within the play, much like the roles Childress was asked to perform.

LACHANZE: Very subjugated - maids, you know, nannies - always those types of roles. And she knew of the elegance of her community, and she knew of the diversity of the characters. And she wanted that to be represented, so she said - and I'm speaking for her - if I can't play it, I'll write it.

LUNDEN: And write, she did - over a dozen plays. Childress also directed much of her work, including "Trouble In Mind." She won an Obie Award for the play, and it would have come to Broadway. But Kathy A. Perkins, who worked with Childress, edited and an anthology of her plays and designed lights for the current production, says...

KATHY A PERKINS: She chose not to change the ending. She's confronting white people on stage, saying you're racist. So you know, that was something you just didn't do.

RANDOLPH-WRIGHT: She would have been the first Black female playwright on Broadway.

LUNDEN: Again, director Charles Randolph-Wright.

RANDOLPH-WRIGHT: To have the bravery, to have that power within to say no - saying no is not an easy thing.

LUNDEN: Over the years, regional theaters and colleges have done "Trouble In Mind." It is both a love letter and a poison pen letter to the theater, with lots of juicy roles. The main conflict is between the actress Wiletta and the white director Al Manners, who believes he's doing a groundbreaking, truthful play that confronts racism.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "TROUBLE IN MIND")

MICHAEL ZEGEN: (As Al Manners) Everyone is worried, worried, worried like crazy. Have the lynchers caught Job? Sam is seated in the corner, whittling a stick.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As Sam) Whittling a stick.

(LAUGHTER)

LUNDEN: At first, Wiletta is deferential. But as rehearsals go on and her frustration builds, she finally confronts the director, says actress LaChanze.

LACHANZE: She followed his direction. She did everything. And she couldn't make it work as an actor. And she just had to tell him that this is who you are making us be. We're not even human beings.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "TROUBLE IN MIND")

LACHANZE: (As Wiletta) Let me tell you about them character parts. Oh, Miss Wentworth, I'm so distressed; I don't know what to do. Always distressed and don't know a damn thing to do.

(LAUGHTER)

LACHANZE: (As Wiletta) It's about my son. He's a good boy, but he got notions that's gon' get him in trouble.

LUNDEN: Director Charles Randolph-Wright says while the play was written 66 years ago, it still stings.

RANDOLPH-WRIGHT: How we are represented is still such a challenge. How any person of color is represented has been - we've had issues with, and we're still having those issues. And that's why her words speak to us so clearly and hurt.

LUNDEN: Not only is "Trouble In Mind" finally making its Broadway debut, London's National Theatre is producing it next month. Randolph-Wright thinks this place should be considered a classic.

RANDOLPH-WRIGHT: This is "Hedda Gabler." This is "Medea." This is - to have that kind of role that is a Black woman from the '50s, when you don't see that, I really wanted Alice Childress to be recognized, to be acknowledged. And she will now be in the canon.

LUNDEN: For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden in New York.

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