Small gestures reveal big things in Alice Childress‘ 1955 drama, Trouble in Mind —particularly in the opening scene, when we’re introduced to Wiletta Mayer, an African-American Broadway actress who, by all accounts, should be the envy of her peers. She’s pretty, sharply dressed, smart, and judgmental but unfailingly polite — until you double-cross her. As portrayed by Margo Hall in a new Aurora Theatre production, she’s got a steady gait and eyes that needle. Standing alone in the opening scene, she poses for an imaginary audience, curving her hips and grinning seductively. That’s how Wiletta imagines herself: She’s a Dorothy Dandridge or Marilyn Monroe, voluptuous, best adorned in clingy dresses. It’s a fraught moment, cut short by the arrival of John Nevins (Jon Joseph Gentry), a young actor from Wiletta’s Virginia hometown. And, like other moments in the play, it later becomes important.
Childress tackled the issue of race and its representation with an amazing degree of candor. Trouble in Mind concerns a cast of black actors, slogging their way through a well-intentioned but utterly misguided Broadway “race” drama. Inequalities on the set mirror injustices in the script, as cast members try to balance their artistic frustrations against real-life problems: poverty, lack of affordable housing, a paucity of job opportunities, prejudice from white people, oppression in all its quotidian manifestations. That’s a lot to swallow, but Childress takes it even further, addressing things like the mammy and maid stereotypes, which would be the stuff of college term-papers for years to come. Rendered for a contemporary Berkeley audience, the play garners new layers of meaning.
That’s partly the result of our ever-evolving discourse on race in a country that’s anything but post-racial. It’s also the work of director Robin Stanton, who pays as much attention to the pregnant pauses as the line-for-line dialogue. Yet most credit goes to the actors, who give depth to characters that might otherwise be vehicles for a theme.
It appears that Childress began her play with a thesis, and sought to substantiate it. Trouble in Mind deals with exploitation on multiple levels, from the actors having to “sir” and “ma’am” their way through a script, to the director (Tim Kniffin) who abuses his actresses and his stage manager (Patrick Russell). Stanton’s cast brings all these subtleties to life. Early in the play, Wiletta and co-star Milie Davis (Elizabeth Carter) carp about all the “flower” and “jewel” names they’ve endured during their careers (their character names in this play are Ruby and Petunia), while Sheldon Forrester (the excellent Rhonnie Washington) reads through his part — just about every third line contains the phrase “Yessiree, sho’ is!” They stare down the play’s resident white girl, an inexperienced Yale drama grad named Judy (Melissa Quine). When director Al Manners walks into the room, he instantly takes command, collaring his actors, barking orders, demanding “muscular tension” and an “anti-lynch theme.” He wants Wiletta to iron and sing spirituals while Sheldon whittles a stick.
By the time Childress staged the Obie-winning Trouble in Mind, she’d already written three other plays and garnered scads of insider knowledge about the show-biz world. It’s not clear whether her jokes about shucking and signifying are based on observation or personal experience, but they always ring true. Old Broadway was, indeed, rife with “Opals,” “Roses,” and “Pearls.” Childress approached the race theme with a sense of humor that few writers could attain.
Still, she couldn’t resist occasionally using her characters as mouthpieces. Wiletta delivers the play’s social message in a heartfelt monologue toward the end of the second act. Manners parrots back a similarly heartfelt speech about the suffering of white people. A veteran white actor (Michael Ray Wisely) voices paranoia about black people, while black characters talk about coming up in the struggle. Late in the second act, Sheldon stuns his peers — and the audience — by dredging up a childhood trauma. It’s a potentially problematic moment that’s executed beautifully in this version.
The real star, of course, is Hall, who has built her own cult of adoration in the Bay Area, most recently playing the black-white girl “Random” in Chinaka Hodge‘s Mirrors in Every Corner. She’s a fiery actress, capable of being smug one moment and vulnerable the next. In this play, she and Kniffen seem like perfect foils. Both are swift, with a tendency to case the stage when nervous. Hall has eyes that cut through pretense. Kniffen’s face bears the hint of some past wound. Their power struggle is mesmerizing.
It’s hard to imagine that a play written half a century ago could still be riveting today. And yet the issues endure. There’s a reason we all laughed at the “iffn’s” and “yessirs” in Manners’ script. We’d heard it before.