Thanks to Molly Smith, Washington audiences now have a chance to catch up to Charm City with a six-guns a-blazing production of this neglected 1955 gem from the Harlem playwright, directed once again with tart clarity by Irene Lewis.
Many incomparable cast members also return, such as Thomas Jefferson Byrd, Starla Benford and Laurence O’Dwyer, as well as the extraordinary E. Faye Butler in the role of veteran stage actress and entertainer Wiletta Mayer, the lead in an anti-lynching play titled Chaos in Bellville.
Trouble in Mind was based on Miss Childress’ experience as an actor relegated to playing maids and mammies. It was to be the first play produced on Broadway written by a black woman, but the producers wanted to her to give the play a happy ending, which she refused to do. Four years later, the groundbreaking distinction went to A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry.
Trouble in Mind pulls back the curtain to reveal the behind-the-scenes sniping and subterfuge during rehearsals for Chaos in Bellville, a play the smarmy white director Al Manners (Marty Lodge) believes is a “breakthrough” drama in its message that violence is a bad thing.
A sharply hilarious scene—one of the many that brought the house down at Arena with hooting and hollering and call backs to the cast—has Wiletta and her younger rival, Millie Davis (Starla Benford), recalling they’ve played every flower in the garden and every jewel in the crown, from Magnolia and Gardenia to Pearl and Opal in their careers. They then find out their roles in the “groundbreaking” play are that of Ruby and Petunia.
Manners forces some atrocious Method Acting exercises on the cast—watch Miss Butler stagger across the stage to pick up trash at the director’s command and you see just what a good actress she is—which are supposed to make everything real and justified. He pretty much runs roughshod over everyone, regardless of skin color, including the much-put upon stage manager Eddie (Garrett Neergaard), the elderly doorman Henry (Laurence O’Dwyer) and the idealistic ingénue Judy (Gretchen Hall).
Manners’ actions do not make the play more honest, but instead throws into harsh light the fact that Wiletta is just another maid singing hymns, ironing and crying out “Lawd have mercy!” and that her character is being forced to commit an act she knows in her heart and soul no mother would ever do.
Her heat is exquisitely tempered by Thomas Jefferson Byrd’s consummately cool and ingenious portrayal of an older actor who plays the cliché to get by in a white-dominated world. The scene where the director asks him to sit on a wooden box and whittle while his son is being dragged off to jail is a satiric marvel, while he renders the very lively audience completely silent and rapt as he matter-of-factly recounts a lynching incident from childhood. Miss Benford also achingly reveals the high price Millie pays to maintain her flashy, chatty public persona while giving us a glimpse of the compromised woman she truly is.
The only stereotypes in Trouble in Mindcould have been the white people, but the cast is so gifted they give humanity and context to their characters’ cringeworthy behavior. Mr. Lodge plays Manners not as a villain one step away from twirling his moustache, but as an unctuous jerk who puts everything on an intellectual plane and who truly cannot fathom why the black actors are not thrilled to pieces to be in such an important work. Far from being in an ivory tower, Mr. Lodge’s Manners also knows the way show business and race relations really work in the 1950s—and when he cruelly spews the unvarnished truth near the end of the play you feel as trapped and brutalized as the people onstage.
As the longtime leading man Bill O’Wray, Daren Kelly makes the character hilariously self-centered, but you can also relate to his bumbling attempts to adjust to this new world of integration. Miss Hall shines as a young woman of privilege blithely acknowledging how tolerant and modern she is, but instead of being turned off by her, you are touched by Judy’s overall sense of kindness. A similar grace note is struck by Mr. O’Dwyer as a show biz survivor and unbowed champion of the underdog.
What astonishes about Trouble in Mind is that it is not a blast from the past but a breath of fresh air. Racial stereotypes persist, and who’s to say contemporary images of blacks as baby mamas, welfare queens, pimps and gangstas are any less demeaning and constricting than Uncle Tom and Aunt Jemima. Talk to black actors today and many will speak of directors and other folks in powerful media positions asking them to be more “street” and “real,” as if urban and poor is the only legitimate mode of being for African Americans. Arena Stage’s production of Miss Childress’ play demands that you ask yourself how much things have really changed.
The Arena Stage production of Trouble in Mind runs thru Oct 23, 2011 at the Mead Center for American Theater, 1101 Sixth St SW, Washington, DC.
Reviewed by Jayne Blanchard
- Tim Smith . Baltimore Sun
Barbara Mackay . Washington Examiner
- Doug Rule . MetroWeekly
Tim Smith . Baltimore Sun
- Jenn Larsen . WeLoveDC
- Charles Shubow . BroadwayWorld
- Sophie Gilbert . Washingtonian
Bob Mondello . Washington City Paper
- Peter Marks . Washington Post
Susan Berlin . Talkin’Broadway
- Don Mendoza and Joel Markowitz . MDTheatreGuide