If you are a lover of theater but dismayed by the lack of people of color on the big stage, PROJECT1VOICE is an organization you should know about. Started by Erich McMillian-Mcall in 2010, PROJECT1VOICE supports African-American theater organizations, which took a hard hit after the after economic crash of 2008. Many black actors were left unemployed, and organizations like the Negro Ensemble Company, which was founded in 1967, had trouble staying afloat. PROJECT1VOICE made it their mission to build the arts in the African-American community, regardless of the economic climate.
On Monday night, PROJECT1VOICE's hard work came to light on Broadway at the American Airlines Theater in New York City. Nine Broadway greats illuminated the stage with a reading of Alice Childress' Trouble in Mind. The cast included theatre powerhouses like LaChanze, who won a Tony for her performance as Celie in the musical version of The Color Purple. It also included the iconic Leslie Uggams, the 1968 Tony winner who broke down barriers in entertainment. Uggams is best known for playing Kizzy in Roots and famously lost the role of Cleopatra to the late, great Elizabeth Taylor.
The edgy and hilarious Trouble in Mind first hit the stage in 1957 at a Broadway theater in New York City. A white director wanted to tell a story of oppressed Negros in the South and insisted that his cast amplify their "blackness.” They had to slap on Southern accents, sing the blues and holler "Lawd have mercy!" every other line. Each of the characters smartly ranted on the typicality of the story, which they all suffered from as black actors on Broadway. If they wanted to work, they had to leave their political feelings about Black art at the stage door.
The writing was sharp, political and, although created over 50 years ago, strikingly relevant for many actors who are sometimes forced to play demeaning roles if they want to work or get exposure. Although the production Monday night was a staged reading, the direction by Charles Randolph Wright was excellent, delivering a polished, entertaining production that handed the audience a message but let them laugh their way through it.
There were some standout performances, like Justine Lupe-Schomp, who comically played a liberal, privileged white actresses struggling with her racially insensitive character, and two-time Tony Award nominee and stage veteran André De Shields, who had the best one-liners of the night. Of course LaChanze and Uggams were nothing short of superb. The cast of nine shined with chemistry.
The reading of Trouble in Mind was a one-night-only production for a worthy cause. For more information on PROJECT1VOICE, click here for their website.
(Photo: Jason Kempin/Getty Images; Jemal Countess/Getty Images)