As a student and young actor, I was astonished that the canon of Black American writers and artists that so richly shaped my artistic life were mostly unknown and so poorly understood. The play’s director, Charles Randolph-Wright, the first Black director with whom I have worked as a leading actor on Broadway, shepherded this project for 15 years. He also read the play in college and fell in love with Childress’s unapologetic writing.
He is the champion of “Trouble in Mind.” Charles, who studied at Duke University and with the Royal Shakespeare Company in London, and danced with Alvin Ailey in New York, was told many times that he could not make this happen. It is as if, with her words in the play, Childress wrote directly to Charles six decades ago, “I’m sick of people signifyin’ we got no sense.” Charles wants to give her the voice she should have had before he and I were born.
In our many conversations, I am invigorated in speaking to him about Black representation in the entertainment industry. Working with a director who I feel lives in my head is thrilling. My private thoughts that I’m sometimes too shy to share, Charles boldly speaks them before I can even get them out. Much like Childress, Charles is committed to telling the truth in his work and in having multidimensional portrayals of Black people, not just the broad strokes we see. And quite frankly, we’re both tired of seeing these examples. In my own career, I’ve taken jobs I didn’t want to do, but I had to play these parts because I needed a job.
I get to work with a dedicated, resilient Black director, and a fearless, committed cast. Childress wanted to speak for the have-nots, the invisibles, and to share her eloquence with the Broadway community and universities across the world. She used her play about Black actors to explore the values of America. But some people weren’t ready, and so many people never got to hear her words. Now I proudly stand on her shoulders, opening my soul to her and teaching my daughters and other lovers of truth about her brilliance.
“Some live by what they call great truths,” Wiletta says in the play. “I’ve always wanted to do somethin’ real grand … in the theater … to stand forth at my best … to stand up here and do anything I want …”
And that’s exactly what Alice Childress did.
LaChanze won the Tony Award for best actress in a leading role in a musical in 2006 for “The Color Purple.” In 2019, LaChanze and her eldest daughter, Celia Rose Gooding, became the first mother and daughter to perform on Broadway as leading actors in the same season.