The Right Kind of Trouble

10. September, 2010 Theater 1 comment

Alice Childress’s play Trouble in Mind feels both very much of its time and ahead of it. First presented off-Broadway in 1955, a month before Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat to a white passenger in Montgomery, it’s full of the energy of the early days of the Civil Rights Movement, the sense that something has to change.

Margo Hall with Rhonnie Washington, Elizabeth Carter and Jon Joseph Gentry in Trouble in Mind. Photo by David Allen

The action of the play takes place far from the segregated South, in a Broadway theater where a cast of black and white actors are rehearsing an anti-lynching play. But many of the African-American members of the cast are originally from the South and have learned that it’s easiest to just agree with white folks and let them feel superior, even when they’re talking nonsense. And the play they’ve come to rehearse is indeed nonsense, a melodrama about a young black man killed for trying to vote, full of stereotypical characters and a vague message that lynching is not very nice. After a while someone has to say something, and how those objections are received says a lot about how racial politics in cosmopolitan, integrated New York City aren’t as far from those Down South as they’d like to think.

Trouble in Mind was largely rewritten for a 1957 Broadway debut that never happened because Childress was unwilling to make compromises similar to those grappled with in the play. That aborted Broadway transfer would have made Childress the first African-American woman playwright to have a play on Broadway, a distinction that went instead to Lorraine Hansberry two years later with A Raisin in the Sun. As a result of the rewrites, the dialogue makes reference to events such as the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the school desegregation riots in Little Rock that hadn’t happened yet when the show first premiered.

Profound thanks are due to Aurora Theatre Company for reviving Trouble in Mind as its season opener this year, because it really is a heck of a play, funny and powerful and more resonant a half-century later than one might think—or than one might hope. It’s hard to mind even the preachy moments in the play, because they’re obviously things that need to be said.

But as good as Childress’s script is, director Robin Stanton’s production is sheer dynamite. Practically everything about the pace, pitch and performances in the production are near perfect, enough so to make one wonder how much of the power is in the play itself and how much of it is in how well the cast sells it. Ultimately that distinction doesn’t matter much, because fortunately that’s not a choice we have to make. This time we can have it all.

Margo Hall gives a dynamic performance as magnetic actress Wiletta Mayer, cast as the mother who has to give her son up to the lynch mob. She thinks the play they’re doing is rubbish but praises it whenever there are white people around, whether it’s their director or just a young actress. When she meets John Nevins, a young actor from her home town in Virginia, she takes him under her wing, giving him tons of advice on how to please their white director: to hide his schooling and be agreeable. “White folks can’t stand unhappy Negroes,” she says, “so laugh, laugh when it ain’t funny at all.”

Rhonnie Washington exemplifies that attitude as the constantly flattering older black actor Sheldon Forrester, who’s so damn likeable while sucking up that it’s hard to resent him for it. The wordless way that he pauses reverently to drink in the atmosphere of the theater when he enters is a particularly nice touch. He’s just happy to be there, and happier still to be nowhere near where he came from.

Ultimately it’s Wiletta who has a hard time biting her tongue, her Southern charm and go-along-to-get-along attitude gradually crumbling between the patronizing, melodramatic unreality of a script that passes itself off as gritty social realism and her director’s infuriating insistence that he knows best about the truth and importance of the play and how best to play it.

Tim Kniffin is marvelously infuriating as director Al Manners, who considers himself color-blind and everybody’s pal. You can see at a glance how full of himself he is, and it’s made all the worse by his self-satisfaction in his fine liberal sentiments and his condescending attitude toward everyone else’s input, even about which baked goods to get for snacks.

Elizabeth Carter is a delight as preening, competitive actress Millie Davis, who always swaggers in sporting fancy dress and showing off something her husband bought for her, making catty remarks to Wiletta in a singsong voice. Millie and Sheldon’s exaggerated performances as stereotypical characters in the play they’re rehearsing are particularly hilarious.

Jon Joseph Gentry has a fine intensity as John, an enthusiastic neophyte actor who turns stony-faced when he chafes at slights. Melissa Quine has an endearing fish-out-of-water quality as well-meaning but naive white ingénue Judy Sears, clutching her script to her chest like a schoolgirl. Earll Kingston is an amiable presence as the chatty old Irish doorman Henry, who becomes an instant confidant for Wiletta, and Patrick Russell has some funny moments as Al’s browbeaten stage manager Eddie Fenton.

Michael Ray Wisely is pricelessly befuddled as successful white actor Bill O’Wray, who fraternizes with the others as little as possible and has a knack for cluelessly offensive remarks. We first see him in character as a speechmaking Southern politician, which makes his transition into a dyspeptic, anxious New Yorker especially amusing.

The period setting is evoked beautifully through the way people talk and act throughout, an illusion helped along by Eric Sinkkonen’s empty-theater set and Callie Floor’s attractive outfits, particularly Wiletta’s dresses.

While Wiletta’s obviously the one we’re all rooting for, director Al gets one of the most resonant speeches in the play, not because it’s easy to sympathize with him for saying it but because it could just as easily be said, and often is said, in the civil rights struggles of today: “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.”

It’s that kind of rationalization for half-measures and band-aid solutions to deep, gaping inequities that you always hear on the brink of broad social change. And somehow you always hear it from people who portray themselves as sympathetic to the oppressed but are still doing whatever they can to slow the progress toward equality that’s coming whether they like it or not.

Trouble in Mind
Through October 3
Aurora Theatre Company
2081 Addison St.
Berkeley, CA

Show #89 of 2010, attended August 26.

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