Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Trouble In Mind at Arena Stage

In the 1950's a brilliant young playwright stirred up the theatrical world by creating plays that focused on the prejudices facing the African American community during the smoldering development of the civil rights movement.   Her name?  Not Lorraine Hansberry, who would have the distinction of being the first African American woman to have a play produced on Broadway.   No, this pioneer of the theater is Alice Childress, whose works should be equally well known.    We should be grateful to actress E. Faye Butler and director Irene Lewis for their efforts since 2007 to revive Ms. Childress' 1955 play Trouble in Mind.

Trouble in Mind takes place in the rehearsal hall of a Broadway theater.   Wiletta Mayer (E. Faye Butler) a well known African American actress has bee tapped for a leading role in a drama about the struggle for African Americans to vote.  The cast is integrated and contains two other veteran actors of color, Millie Davis (Starla Benford) and Sheldon Forrester (Thomas Jefferson Byrd). Milly and Wiletta long to break out of the stereotype of playing maids and "mammy" roles.  Sheldon is a bit more accepting of his life's career.   A young white actress, Judy Sears (Gretchen Hall) and a young African American actor, John Nevins (Brandon J. Dirden) are simply thrilled to have a professional acting job.  A white actor with t.v. credits, Bill O'Wray (Daren Kelly) completes the acting ensemble.  The actors are steered in this production by the supposedly enlightened white director, Marty Lodge (Al Manners).   Yet, despite the dreams of starring in a Broadway play with an important subject matter, the company discovers that the play is deeply flawed and contains glaring offensive stereotypes.   They also discover that no matter the director's attempts to be fair and open-minded, the prejudices that he has towards his actors of color will surface.   Will principles be sacrificed for a Broadway credit?  Can the conflicts between the characters ever truly be resolved?

This is a wonderfully complex play that feels as if it were written today, not in 1955.   It contains amazing characters and forces the audience to see the biting truths that lie underneath the many comedic moments in the play.    That the play does not have a patently satisfactory ending reflects the truth that life does not have easily resolved endings.   In fact, the reason that the play never appeared on Broadway in the 1950's stems from Ms. Childress' conflicts with the producers who asked her to re-write the play, at one point including a third act, in the hopes of providing that elusive happy ending.  

What is fresh and modern about this play are the dynamics that play out between the characters.   Wiletta Mayer is established as a well-known actress, yet the director dismisses her objections to certain elements of the play, yet he readily accepts the criticism given by his well-known white leading man.  Millie and Sheldon are more accepting of the stereotyping of the African American characters in the play, acknowledging that they may be tired of playing certain types, but appear accepting of the status quo.   The director, Al Manners, who claims to be enlightened, subtly shows his prejudices, until in the heat of the moment he is forced to admit them.   Wiletta is a cry in the wilderness for calling out the absurdities of what she is being forced to perform and the audience is clearly on her side in wishing that she will triumph.  Yet, as in real life, the denouement is bittersweet and unsatisfactory.

The entire acting company gives outstanding performances.  Brandon J. Dirden gives a fresh performance as the naive young actor being schooled in the ways of the world for African American actors.  Gretchen Hall is equally charming as the equally naive Judy Sears who tries to break down the barriers between herself and the African American actors.   Daren Kelly's Bill O'Wray, while given less time to develop has the right feel for his t.v. star personality.   Garrett Neergaard has great comic timing as Eddie Fenton, the director's put-upon assistant.

As the stage door man Henry, Laurence O'Dwyer brings a warmth to the only character in the play that succeeds in treating everyone equally.   Starla Benford provides support and a foil to Wiletta as Millie Davis.    As the more accepting Sheldon Forrester,  Thomas Jefferson Byrd's lilting qualities provide a charm.  Yet, when Sheldon relates a dark story from his childhood that same soothing lilt draws in the audience.  He is mesmerizing.

As the director Al Manners, Marty Lodge is a forceful presence whether trying to be the enlightened liberal director or delivering the barbs that clearly prove Al is not as unprejudiced as he claims to be.   Al Manners has a theatrical past that colors his behavior and Mr. Lodge navigates this character well while finding the right times to provide sympathy for what is the antagonist of the piece.

E. Faye Butler left the acclaimed revival of Oklahoma! to return to the role of Wiletta Mayer.  She has played the role off and on since 2007.   Ms. Butler is a force on the stage, whether Wiletta is upholding the facade that she is a leading lady of the stage, or fighting to correct the glaring errors in the script by refusing to give in to the stereotypes. Ms. Butler has a full satisfying range of emotions as she desperately articulates Wiletta's anguish and desire to break away from and find a human truth in the script she is not being allowed to help shape.    It is a triumphant performance.

Alice Childress had a long career.  While she is best known for her book from the 1970's A Hero Ain't Nothing But A Sandwich and the film made from it, she deserves a deeper acknowledgement of her long body of work.  May this and subsequent productions of Trouble In Mind give publicity to a pioneer of the theater whose works need a wider audience.

Trouble In Mind will be performed at Arena Stage's Mead Center for American Theater in the Kreeger Theater through October 23, 2011.   For tickets and other performance information please visit

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