Trouble in Mind
The Original Trouble-maker
Alice Childress was called many things in her lifetime – almost all of which she loathed. From her early beginnings in Charleston, S.C., to her career as a writer, Childress sought to fight against a world filled with the categorizations and stereotypes to which she had often fallen victim. In her writing, she found an avenue to mirror her experiences, desires, opinions, and politics through her characters, “the intellectual poor” who, like her, were subject to opposition, scrutiny, and ultimately, to keeping what was really on their minds to themselves.
“A woman who will tell her age will tell anything” – Wiletta Mayer
From the moment she stepped into the public eye, Childress kept the details of her personal life as far away from it as possible. Biographies list conflicting dates for her birthday (October 12, 1916 and October 12, 1920) as well as several different names she tried on, including Louise Henderson and Alice Herndon, before donning the pen name Alice Childress. In an interview with Ann Shockley in 1973, Childress stated:
“I have tried with everything I have within me to rebel against some things in society. ... I think age is used against women in particular. It is being used against men more than it used to be, but women in particular, and to be black in this society, and to be a woman in this society, you will find too much of society pitched against you, you know, pitted against you.”
Little is known about Childress’ family as well. She rarely spoke about her parents and was sent to live with her maternal grandmother, Eliza Campbell, in Harlem when she was 9. Traditionally cited as the guiding force in young Alice’s life, Campbell bestowed upon her granddaughter a great love for reading and storytelling. She later became the muse for the protagonist in Childress’ novel A Short Walk.
“I want to be an actress. ... I’m gonna be one, you hear me?” – Wiletta Mayer
The acting bug bit Childress when she was a teenager. After extensive mentorship and training from Venezuela Jones, the head of Federal Theatre Project’s Negro Youth Theatre, she set her sights on professional gigs on and Off-Broadway. As she began making her way through the audition circuit, Childress discovered the roles available to her were an array of poorly drawn and limited stereotypes such as the notorious “mammy” role of the black female caretaker to a white family. In addition, she consistently was told that she was too light to play some roles, too dark to play others.
Frustrated and disappointed, Childress found solace in African-American theater groups like the Harlem Players and American Negro Theatre, to which she was a member for nearly a decade. In 1949, Childress wrote her first one-act, Florence, in response to fears from her male ANT members and producers that audiences wouldn’t pay or enjoy plays written for and starring black women. Set in a segregated waiting room in a Southern railway station, Florence comments on Childress’ plight in the audition room through the lens of a black mother who refuses to support her daughter’s desire to act until she has an encounter with a jaded white actress on the subway. The success of Florence encouraged Childress to stop pursuing acting in the 1950s and focus on creating and developing the roles she so longed to see herself and her peers in.
“Show business, it’s just a business. Colored folks ain’t in no theater.” – Wiletta Mayer
In 1955, Childress wrote Trouble in Mind, her first original full-length play. It premiered at Greenwich Mews Theatre Off-Broadway on November 3, 1955. Slated for a limited run, the play was extended to a total of 91 performances, with rave reviews from major critics. The buzz generated interest from producers for a potential Broadway run. Trouble in Mind was then optioned for Broadway, the first by an African-American female playwright. It was slated to open in spring 1957 but it never got there. In Trouble’s case, art weirdly anticipated life.Fearing the script’s startlingly candid exploration of an integrated company staging a Broadway play – with her characters challenging the roles and social hierarchy of the very commercial theater industry the play was optioned by – the producers pushed Childress to rewrite Trouble in Mind to create a sunnier conclusion that could be retitled So Early Monday Morning.
For nearly two years, Childress struggled to rewrite her script to her white producers’ appeasement, compiling more than a dozen drafts, with an additional third act that tipped the play in their favor. However, the attempts at complying with her producers’ requests took a toll on her. “I couldn’t recognize the play one way or the other,” she recalls in a personal interview with James V. Hatch “Then after one person dropped it, I think another person dropped it and then it just sat there and I felt like I didn’t want it done anymore.” Regretting her attempts to change her play against her artistic intuition, Childress pulled the play from its Broadway option and restored her original ending when the play was published. To this day, Trouble in Mind has yet to appear on the Great White Way.
By setting Trouble in Mind in the rehearsal hall of a Broadway house, Alice Childress left us with both a love letter to the theater and an unflinching indictment of its institutionalized inequities. Layering the rehearsal of a play within her play, Trouble in Mind exposes Childress’ artistic ambitions and the obstacles she encountered throughout her career, uncomfortably (and somewhat hilariously) walking the fine line between reality and theatricality with every word. From start to finish, Childress made sure what troubled her mind would always live in the minds of her characters and her audiences long after we’ve left our seats.