Several years ago, in a statement that began with the words “We See You, White American Theater,” a nationwide coalition of theater professionals demanded sweeping changes to address systemic racism in their field.
As a Black dramatist and actress in the 1950s, Alice Childress saw white American theater all too clearly. So much so that she wrote a play about it, “Trouble in Mind," which premiered off-Broadway in 1955.
But Childress refused to license a watered-down version of her play for a transfer to Broadway. Her principled stand cost Childress the chance to be the first Black female playwright to have her work produced on Broadway. (That breakthrough occurred in 1959, with Lorraine Hansberry’s “A Raisin in the Sun.”)
Not until 2021, nearly three decades after Childress’s death, did “Trouble in Mind” get a Broadway run, starring LaChanze.
But Broadway has a notoriously short attention span. It often falls to regional theaters to play the vital role of staging underappreciated dramas, introducing them to new audiences. Keeping theater alive, you might say.
A case in point is the engrossing and illuminating production of “Trouble in Mind” at Lyric Stage Company of Boston, helmed by Dawn M. Simmons.
As a director, and as a cofounder and coproducing artistic director of the Front Porch Arts Collective — whose stated mission is “advancing racial equity in Boston through theater” — Simmons has been an important force in bringing Black voices and stories to the forefront.
“Trouble in Mind” ranks high on her list of accomplishments. A complex, intricately layered comedy-drama with a lot of moving parts and tonal variation, it presents a challenge to any director. Simmons keeps it all in balance.
The Lyric Stage production is set in New York in 1957, during rehearsals for a Broadway production of “Chaos in Belleville," a (fictional) play by a white playwright about a Black man lynched because he tried to vote. Slated to headline that production as his mother is Wiletta Mayer (Patrice Jean-Baptiste), a middle-aged Black actress. It’s her first lead role, and it could be a high point of her career.
But Wiletta is contemplating the compromises she has made — and the stereotypical roles of maids and nannies she has played — in order to have that career. She is determined that will not happen again.
And as rehearsals proceed, and “Trouble in Mind” assumes the contours of a play within a play, it becomes increasingly evident to Wiletta that “Chaos in Belleville” does not live up to its billing as a progressive work.
The white director, Al Manners (Barlow Adamson), says to Wiletta: “The American public is not ready to see you the way you want to be seen because, one, they don’t believe it; two, they don’t want to believe it; and three, they’re convinced they’re superior."
Al himself seems to think he’s superior. Beneath his veneer of geniality, his true nature — condescending, bullying, a control freak, racist — is revealed. Wiletta clashes with him, fiercely objecting to a scene in “Chaos in Bellville” in which her character, the mother, surrenders her son to the police in their Southern town, aware that she is basically delivering him to a terrible fate.
The strong ensemble for “Trouble in Mind” includes Davron S. Monroe as Sheldon Forrester, a veteran Black character actor (Monroe is spellbinding in a scene where Sheldon describes a lynching he witnessed as a boy); Kadajh Bennett as John Nevins, an idealistic young actor; Maconnia Chesser as Millie Davis, a Black actress in her mid-30s who chafes at the roles she’s offered; Allison Beauregard as Judy Sears, a naïve white actress who has recently graduated from the Yale School of Drama; Bill Mootos as Bill O’Wray, a white character actor who is openly racist; James Turner as Eddie Fenton, the stage manager; and Robert Walsh as Henry, the theater’s elderly and voluble doorman.
At one point in “Trouble in Mind,” in conversation with Henry, Wiletta gives voice to her highest ambition: “Some live by what they call great truths. Henry, I’ve always wanted to do something real grand . . . in the theater . . . to stand forth at my best . . . to stand up here and do anything I want.”
In Jean-Baptiste’s impassioned performance, we can feel every step of Wiletta’s journey, while also getting the sense that a new journey is just beginning.
TROUBLE IN MIND
Play by Alice Childress. Directed by Dawn M. Simmons. Presented by Lyric Stage Company of Boston. Through Feb. 4. Tickets $25-$75. 617-585-5678, www.lyricstage.com