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REVIEW: Trouble in Mind (Guthrie Theater)

Photo by Keri Pickett.

Trouble in Mind, which opened this past weekend at the Guthrie Theater, is a humorous and gripping play that is not often produced. The author, Alice Childress, was an African-American actress whose notoriety as a “left-wing” playwright merited her own FBI investigative file in the 1950s. The play was performed Off Broadway and earned an Obie Award in the 1955-56 season. This production, directed for the Guthrie by Valerie Curtis-Newton, is as relevant today as it was when Trouble in Mind premiered over sixty years ago.

Kris L. Nelson (Eddie Fenton), John Catron (Al Manners), and Margo Moorer (Wiletta Mayer) in Trouble in Mind. Photo by Keri Pickett.
Kris L. Nelson (Eddie Fenton), John Catron (Al Manners), and Margo Moorer (Wiletta Mayer) in Trouble in Mind. Photo by Keri Pickett.

Using the play-within-a-play approach, Childress’ propounds the provocative theme that it behooves black people to appear happy with second-class status in society…just to get along and survive in White America. As noted by the lead character, “White people can’t stand unhappy Negroes.”

The central character is Wiletta Mayer (Margo Moorer), a black actress who has made her living on the stage and in films playing stereotypical maid and nanny roles. She has been cast to play her first major role in a Broadway production about a lynching in the South. Wiletta explains to a new black actor (Marcel Spears) the game that blacks have to play to succeed in theatre. She tells him that he must always laugh at white people’s jokes and never question what they say.

Wiletta has worked with the director Al Manners (John Catron), in previous productions. Manners is an egotist who believes that he is doing something socially significant by producing a play about a lynching. He believes it will cause the audience to decry lynching as inhumane because the victim was actually innocent of a crime (the alleged crime was voting). But privately, the actors are disturbed by the portrayal of their characters.

Two veteran black actors, Sheldon (Cleavant Derricks) and Millie (Austene Van), joke about the stereotypical, demeaning roles they must repeatedly play while they are outside of the director’s hearing. To round out the ensemble, Judy Sears (Chloe Armad) plays a rich white girl with apparently no serious acting background. She is to play a landowner’s daughter who tries to get her father (Peter Thomson) to make the “Negroes” happy by letting them have a barn dance.

Wiletta becomes so bothered by the depiction of the character she is expected to play, she eventually breaks her own rule and questions the director’s intentions. Her disruption of the rehearsal ignites the play’s climactic scene in which her fellow actors express fear they will lose their jobs, Sheldon recounts his childhood memory of witnessing a lynching in the South and the director is forced to question whether he is unwilling to accept blacks as equals.

The entire cast does well in this Guthrie Theatre production. Spears quite humorously shifts both his posture and his expressions whenever he is told he is not acting sufficiently submissive as the lynching victim. But the intensity of the show rests ably upon the shoulders of Moorer as she subtly makes the shift from a seasoned actor who humorously takes in stride the need to play a “happy Negro,” to a person who is deeply troubled and can no longer do it.

Unfortunately, it cannot be said that black actors are no longer subject to stereotypical roles today, as underscored a few years ago in the 2005 Academy Award-winning movie Crash, in which a black script writer is forced to rewrite a script because the black characters appeared to be “too smart.” Ironically, Trouble in Mind was never produced on Broadway because Childress refused to write a happy ending. Curtis-Newton has directed a very compelling production of this thought provoking play and it is one of the year’s best dramatic productions.

Bev Wolfe