Directed by Vaun Monroe
At The Artistic Home, Chicago
“Still there’s a hesitancy about how to handle racial things. It’s an unpleasant topic, true, but that’s no reason not to go through the discomfort.”—Alice Childress
Incendiary look into racial attitudes in the arts plays well
Playwright Alice Childress’ 1957 Trouble In Mind bravely dealt with racism by utilizing a play-within-a-play device to dramatize racial attitudes in both African-Americans and whites. This was powerful and controversial theatre in the 1950’s especially with the stunning ending after a quite funny look at foibles of actors and directors as they struggle through rehearsals for a new radically “ground braking” play Chaos in Belleville.
Trouble In Mind is satiric comedy/drama based on the conflict of not compromising one’s artistic integrity. Set in the 1950’s, we meet a mixed racial cast of Equity actors as the begin the journey to make a new antilynching play work on Broadway. Childress’ play pokes fun (and loads of laughs) at actor’s whining, director’s frustrations and the well-meaning theatre pros working to overcome their built-in racial feelings.
Written by an African-American feminist/activist, Trouble In Mind honestly and fairly deals with the contradictions and hypocritical leanings of both blacks and whites. In the early scenes we meet the middle aged seasoned actress, Wiletta Mayer (a fabulous performance by Velma Austin) who schools a young African-American man, John Nevins (Armand Fields) and newbie to Broadway on how to get along with the white directors and producers. She is hilarious as she tells him to smile and laugh at the director’s jokes. Her survival advise amounts to ‘acting’ out those servant roles she has long had to play.
As we meet the other African-American actors, each echos Wiletta’s get-along tactics, especially Sheldon Forrester (Cola Needham) who is desperate to keep employed. Only when they are alone among themselves does their true feelings emerge.
When the ultra-liberal rich white girl, Judy Sears (Kim Chelf) is cast, she tries to blend in with the African-Americans. They are weary but friendly.
The flamboyant and determined white director, Al Manners (a strong performance by John Mossman) and his bumbling stage manager, Eddie Fenton arrive, the role playing emerges. Wilmetta and her group deftly use their get-along tactics to charm and boost the ego of the director. Al is a method director bent on getting his actors to internalize the ‘truth’ of their characters in every scene. He uses exercises to get the cast into realizing the truth of their actions in the play. Wiletta has much trouble with the ‘truth’ of her character as she argues that a black mother would never tell her son to go with the whites risking his lynching.
Wiletta realizes that her former get-along tactics would no longer serve her especially with a incendiary radical play that depicts every negative old-fashion stereotype of blacks. To her, the script crosses the line and she argues that it isn’t “truthful” but Al demands that it not be changes. We see how eventually most of the cast comes to realize the flaws in the script.
As the conflict emerges, each character’s true colors become vividly apparent. The painful rage spills over as the demeaning view of blacks smacks all in the face. The director give a powerful speech defending himself and the play as going as far as possible to dramatize the folly of racism. As he makes powerful points, his true deep-seated feeling comes out in a blunt out burst. You’ll be shocked and surprised here as you realize that racism is built in to most of us.
The Artistic Home’s Trouble In Mind is tightly directed by Vaun Monroe. Velma Austin and John Mossman lead the terrific cast with strong nuanced performances. When Velma Austin give us a look at the black nanny stereotype, she aptly depicts the negative demeaning characterization of black seen too often in films and on stage.
Trouble In Mind is an important work that begs to be seen. It is truthfully written, balanced with loads of humor as it deals head on with racism. It was a radical play in the 1950’s and, shamefully, it is still revelation today. This production will make you laugh and it will stun you sensitivities as only theatre can do. Put this one on your “must see” list.
Talk Theatre in Chicago podcast
Date Reviewed: February 7, 2011
For full show information, check out the Trouble In Mind page at Theatre In Chicago.
At the Artistic Home, 3914 N. Clark Street, Chicago, IL, call 866-811-4111, www.theartistichome.org, tickets $28, Thursdays at 7:30 pm, Fridays & Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 3 pm, running time is 2 hours, 10 minutes with intermission, through March 20, 2011