Photo by Liz Lauren
Alice Childress’ powerful play Trouble in Mind did not get its planned Broadway run in the mid-1950s because the author refused to compromise her angry vision of the show to satisfy producers. (It finally debuted—and won a Tony—just last year.) It’s a stunning example of life at least obliquely imitating art, as a central conflict of the play comes when a Black cast member objects vehemently to the show’s ending and wants it changed, resulting in angry arguments with the play’s first-time-on-Broadway director. Writing the play in 1952, the playwright could not have been aware of this echo of her plot, but she clearly was aware of the deepening racial tensions of that decade, and this play attacks them head-on.
Trouble in Mind, directed at TimeLine Theatre by Ron OJ Parsons, is not afraid of that fight. Though ultimately it becomes a nasty battle between two characters, it is basically an ensemble piece that, from the start, highlights the ways in which Black performers were routinely belittled by the White men in charge of the plays. The play is only a few minutes old when veteran singer Wiletta Mayer (Shariba Rivers), cast as an actress in a drama, gives critical advice to John Nevins (Vincent Jordan), a neophyte who wants to make acting his career, telling him to be sure to laugh at everything the director says and not to argue. This “Uncle Tomming,” she says, will keep him out of trouble and enhance his chances of making it. Clearly, the “trouble” is not just in someone’s mind.
The rest of the ensemble trickles in: Gus Van Swearingen as Bill O’Wray, a regular (White) Broadway presence, Jordan Ashley Grier as (White) newcomer Judy Sears, Tarina J. Bradshaw as (Black) actress Millie Davis, Kenneth D. Johnson as Sheldon Forrester, a (Black) actor who is also the production’s designated envoy to Equity in case of disputes, Charles Stranski as 78-year-old house manager Henry, Adam Shalzi as stage manager Eddie Fenton, and Tim Decker as (White) director Al Manners. All except for Stranski and Shalzi eventually become engrossed in the racial issues here (though Stranski’s character is an Irishman who understands unequal power struggles). Their task: to put on a play about a Reconstruction-era conflict regarding a Black man (John Nevins) trying to take advantage of his newly-acquired right to vote. In their way: among other things, interpersonal antagonisms that arise among cast members and the director, his violent temper and racist treatment of his actors and specific (though at times unarticulated) expectations he has of them, and issues with the script’s requiring a mother to turn her own son in for what will surely be a lynching.
It is this last matter that ultimately destroys any hope of harmony here and provides the major element of Trouble in Mind‘s clearest conflict when Wiletta, who has been struggling throughout to adapt to Manners’ instructions regarding motivation, bitterly argues that she simply cannot find anything that would motivate her character to turn over her son. Rivers is outstanding, especially in a second act in which Wiletta takes a vehement stand against the director, whose vision of the play turns all of the Black characters into simpering, bent-over caricatures of real people in real situations. (Manners’ version of the play is so badly blocked, constantly featuring clumps of people, that it would never have made it to Broadway. Parsons, however, has a lot of fun with this, getting comic joy from seeing those clumps move and change in unison.)
Rivers is not the only actor to shine in Act Two. Decker’s performance here is awesome: Manners’ actions and default mannerisms and choices are clearly racist to a 21st-Century audience (and even to the Black members of his cast), but he honestly does not think of himself that way. Midway through the act, Decker gives a long, emotional monologue about his own indoctrination into racial issues, and it’s the first time the audience becomes aware that he is not just a White guy on a bigoted power trip but someone who does believe in a new society. When Manners asks, in sincere confusion, “Where the hell do you think I can raise a hundred thousand dollars to tell the unvarnished truth?” it becomes clear that he is doing all he feels he can do in his era, even if his cast doesn’t accept that.
In addition, Johnson and Swearingen get moments in the spotlight—quite literally, in Swearingen’s case, as lighting designer Brandon Wardell gives him a special light for a monologue O’Wray delivers to a political crowd…punctuated by (intentionally goofy) canned applause. Johnson’s monologue is more low-key but far more powerful, as Sheldon describes in painful detail an actual lynching he witnessed as a boy. And even though the rest of the cast doesn’t get this kind of moment, it’s clear that Childress understood how to give her actors enough to build on. We even learn a lot about Henry, who in another’s hands might have been a simple walk-on character. And the intentionally humorless remark that Judy believes having to return to her life in Bridgeport is in any way similar to the struggles of her castmates absolutely defines who this mostly clueless character is.
Watching this play, which Parsons directs with such a keen mind for pacing that the 2:15 showtime (including an intermission) seems to take no time at all, anyone can see that the fact that Childress was largely ignored in her lifetime (she died in 1994) is unconscionable. She should have been easily as celebrated as Lorraine Hansberry and more recent artists like Suzan-Lori Parks or Lynn Nottage. Trouble in Mind is not her only legacy but, if it were, this production proves that it would be enough to celebrate her as a foundational Black theatrical voice.
Tickets for Trouble in Mind are available from TimeLine Theatre and at 773.281.8463 x6. It is playing at 615 W. Wellington St., Chicago through Dec 18. For more Chicago reviews or show information, see chicagoonstage.com or theatreinchicago.com.