Talk about a play with back story. In 1955, Black novelist and playwright Alice Childress wrote Trouble in Mind
, but had to change the ending at the direction of one of the white and male producers to get it on stage. Her play was optioned for Broadway but there were even more demands on her to change her script — mainly to make white audiences happier with it.
Childress (also the author of the young adult novel A Hero Ain't Nothing But a Sandwich
) worked on her play for two years but finally called a halt when she couldn't come up with something that the producers liked. She wasn't happy with it either; along the way she'd lost a lot of her original work. So it never made it to Broadway in the '50s.
But the comedy with an edge did make it to Broadway in 2021 to good reviews and now Main Street Theater is presenting its regional premiere.
Tené A. Carter has the lead role of Wiletta Mayer, a seasoned actress who has acquired her theater knowledge through on-the-job training, rather than by going to acting school. Now, finally she has her chance to be in a Broadway play and she's faced with other cast members who've approached the craft in a completely different way. She tries to mentor a younger black actor, seeking to protect him from some of the experiences she's had in theater.
The theater world is dominated by white directors and producers — even the most well-intentioned ones — who have formed their own ideas about what it means to be Black. None of that involves actually asking a Black person about their own reality.
"She came up in a time when there was vaudeville and then there was the experience. It wasn't necessarily going to an acting school or getting a master's. It was going from gig to gig," Carter says. "I would describe her as a self-made woman, one who has tons of experiences due to life. She's had ups, she's had downs. She's seen it all.
"She has a connection to one of the younger actors, John Nevins, and she doesn't realize at first that he actually is the son of a good friend of hers that she went to school with. So she tries to school him in how to survive, particularly how to survive in a white world, in white theater and how to get roles. At some point she almost discourages him; she doesn’t want to see him get hurt," Carter says.
However, Nevins went to school and has a different take on his place in the world. Wiletta has come up at a time when to survive she laughed at white folks jokes — even when they weren't funny — appeasing them to survive, Carter says. Meanwhile Nevins says he can't do things he doesn't believe in.
"She has a line that says "White folks hate to see Negroes unhappy,' But in the end, she speaks her truth."
Carter had not been acquainted with this particular play although she had known of Childress from the author's other work. She thinks the original ending is fascinating and believes Childress was way ahead of her time.
Despite this being a comedy or satire, by the end of Act 1 there's some very serious moments, Carter says. The play within the play delves into the Stanislavski method which was being introduced into American theater, promising more realistic actors and stagecraft, Carter says. Wiletta realizes that the same person, the director, who asked her to make her acting approach more true to life, really doesn't want to see that.
When Carter was 10 years old she saw the musical Cats
and fell in love with theater. She got her degree in theater from Florida A&M and did an internship at the Kennedy Center. She got involved in Shakespeare and Co. in New York City and then moved out to Los Angeles.
She comes from an artistic family. Her father was a musician who plays the saxophone and both parents are part of the Black arts movement in Miami, Florida.
Although this play is set in 1957 (with glorious costumes to match) Carter says it could have been set in 2022. She calls this a powerful play because in its depiction of everyday people, it's so relatable to audience members.
"A good work you can't hold down. So here it comes years later and yet right on time."
Performances are scheduled for 7:30 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays and 3 p.m. Sundays. Opening night is scheduled for September 17 (with Preview performances September 11, 15 and 16) and the play runs through October 16 as Main Street's Rice Village location, 2540 Times Boulevard. For more information, call 713-524-6706 or visit mainstreettheater.com. $35-$59.