NEW YORK, NY.-
Now that Broadway has returned and made it through the fall, and as it deals with a raft of cancellations because of the resurgent pandemic, Ive been thinking a lot about the meaning of progress. Promoted, in large part, by the racial reckoning of 2020, the theater industry has responded to criticisms about its systemic racism by featuring an impressive number of plays by Black writers or with Black leads.
In the last few weeks, Ive seen a handful of these shows: Trouble in Mind, Caroline, or Change and Clydes. Individually, their plots and period settings offer great insight into how far weve really come. But taken together, they reveal a full range of aesthetic and racial possibilities that exist for their African American characters once the white gaze is diminished or fully removed.
My feelings largely align with the points Alice Childress makes in her 1955 play, Trouble in Mind, a comedy-drama about a veteran Black actress named Wiletta Mayer who, while preparing to stage an anti-lynching play called Chaos in Belleville for Broadway, begins to challenge the racial paternalism through which its white playwright and director insist on depicting Black Southern life. More specifically, the plot follows Wilettas mounting frustrations about her role as a mother who does not protect her Black son from a white mob after he tries to vote. Its an act that seems inconceivable to Wiletta.
Trouble in Mind, which was originally produced in Greenwich Village, did not make it to Broadway in 1957 after its white producers insisted that Childress provide a more conciliatory ending for her Black and white characters, and she refused. Now, Charles Randolph-Wright, a Black director, is overseeing the Roundabout Theatre Companys Broadway production of the show at the American Airlines Theatre.
In the play, Wiletta (portrayed brilliantly by LaChanze) initially accepts her characters subservience and exaggerated Southern drawl, and the problematic messaging about civil rights in Chaos in Belleville, as the price she must pay in order to have one of the few parts offered to Black actors at the time. Set backstage, as Wiletta and her fellow cast members begin rehearsing with the director, Al Manners (Michael Zegen), we follow Wilettas progression from a woman trying to school a younger Black actor on how to ingratiate himself to white people, like Manners, who can make or break his career to a woman threatening to leave the production if her role continues to traffic in such offensive and absurd racial stereotypes.
As she evolves, the audience is exposed to multiple gazes: the intimate conversations that Black performers have with one another beyond the purview of white people; the figurative masks that Black actors wear in front of their white peers and theater power brokers as a matter of professional survival; and the white gaze that Al and the other white characters don throughout the rehearsals in which they slip back and forth between declarations of how liberal they are and their racist insults.
These three perspectives collide when Wiletta fully exposes Als racism, a climax that not only puts her career at risk but jeopardizes the future of the play. However, in Childress deft hands, this potential loss is not a tragedy, but rather a reversal of fortunes for Wiletta: Once Al is no longer able to determine her fate, she is able to give the performance of a lifetime and live out her dignity in its fullness onstage.
I thought a lot about Wilettas limited theatrical options a mammy, a maid, an emotionally repressed Southern mother while watching Tony Kushner and Jeanine Tesoris musical, Caroline, or Change, which first appeared on Broadway in 2004, and now is also being produced by the Roundabout Theatre on Broadway, at Studio 54. Set in Louisiana in 1963, eight years after Trouble in Mind made its debut and when the civil rights movement was reaching full bloom, the musical does not focus on the major events affecting the nation at the time the assassination of Medgar Evers, the March on Washington or the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama.
Instead, Caroline, or Change is a semiautobiographical exploration of how the countrys racial dynamics affected an 8-year-old boy named Noah Gellman, his middle-class Jewish American Southern family, their 39-year-old Black housekeeper, Caroline Thibodeaux (played by the breathtaking Sharon D Clarke), and her three children.
When we first meet Caroline, she is doing laundry in the Gellmans basement. Physically alone, her world seems to come alive when the radio (Nasia Thomas, Nya and Harper Miles), the washing machine (Arica Jackson), and the dryer (Kevin S. McAllister) become characters onstage and provide Caroline with a sense of camaraderie and comfort that she does not share with her white employers.
Public spaces are even more segregated so she finds community in the moon (NKenge) and the bus (McAllister again), who speak to her as well. The richness of Carolines life, however, is always illusory: The gaze through which we understand her story is never hers, but rather that of Noahs as he reminisces on his childhood and his familys (especially his stepmother Roses) fraught relationship with her during this turbulent time in American history.
To his credit, Kushners script never pretends that Noahs lens is Carolines. One of the musicals most revealing scenes takes Noahs myopic vision head-on. After Rose (Caissie Levy) tries to teach Noah a lesson by asking Caroline to take home any change that she finds in his pockets before she washes them, Noah imagines Carolines children at home, happy to spend their entire evening thinking about him and how they will spend the money. This satirical turn challenges Noahs nostalgia, putting his racial narcissism front and center.
It is also a perfect counterpoint to the professed liberalism of Al Manners from Trouble in Mind and the unacknowledged white male privilege that he wields over his cast and stage crew.
And yet, Caroline, or Change still feels incomplete. Not because Noah and Caroline are unable to resolve their conflict or because the unrest driving the civil rights movement is nodded to through the toppling of a Confederate statue, but because for the entirety of the show Caroline remains Noahs fantasy, and thus unknowable to us. She is not a fully realized character.
Such distance, of course, is realistic. Memory is fallible and given their differences, I expected Noah to have very little access to Carolines inner life or imagination. But I longed to see her unmediated through his sentimentality, and truly on her own terms.
Though Caroline is the protagonist of this musical (and Clarke really does own this stage), Caroline is not fully empowered, her agency limited in the story because it was not really hers in the first place.
This is not to say that I need to have an all-access pass to a Black womans interiority in order to appreciate the depth of her humanity. In fact, I found the title character in Lynn Nottages comedy Clydes, played by the ever-perfect Uzo Aduba at the Helen Hayes Theater, to be refreshingly inaccessible.
The owner of a truck stop diner in Reading, Pennsylvania, Clyde also oversees the kitchen that she only staffs with formerly incarcerated men and women. Not only does she impose her exacting demands on her employees a direct contrast to the Zen-like style of her head cook, Montrellous (the wonderful Ron Cephas Jones) but she is the only person whose backstory we never learn and who, besides her endless stream of costume changes, has no clear character arc.
In other words, she is intentionally flat, a feature that Adubas nuanced performance leans into with wit and grit, making Clyde a rarity for a Black actress: an antihero. She does not have agency; she has full-fledged power. Her omnipresence is most likely a stand-in for state violence or Satan, or both. Unlike Wiletta, who needs to break free of roles that confine her, or Caroline, who, we assume, feels suffocated by the oppressive conditions of the South, Clyde is the one who traps her employees in a permanent space of unfreedom and social purgatory.
One of the things about where we are today is now we have a multitude of Black voices on the stage, Nottage said to me during a recent interview at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. I feel the freedom to put someone onstage who isnt perfect, who isnt heroic, who isnt necessarily showing the best of us, but showing an aspect of us. In other words, Clydes villainy is also an aesthetic liberation for Nottage, a character that is neither born out of nor now embattled with the white gaze.
Ultimately, such provocative personalities are signs of progress for us all, both on and off stage. We can only hope that such roles continue to exist not as a one-off or in a vacuum but as a sister among many. This is the Broadway that Wiletta Mayer really fought for as she longed to celebrate the complexity, diversity and messiness of Black life.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times