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SCRUTINY | Strong Performances Light Up Shaw Festival’s Stellar ‘Trouble In Mind’

By Paula Citron on September 20, 2021

Trouble_In_Mind.-Shaw-Festival

Shaw Festival/ Trouble in Mind by Alice Childress, directed by Philip Akin, Jackie Maxwell Studio Theatre, Aug. 8 to Oct. 9. Tickets available at shawfest.com.

Trouble in Mind is exactly that. It’s something that the lead character feels, but it is also something that the audience shares. If you don’t leave the theatre with trouble in mind, you’ve been living in a bubble these last few years in terms of race relations.

Alice Childress should have been the first Black playwright to have a work mounted on Broadway, but when her producers wanted to make the play more anodyne for white audiences, she refused. Trouble in Mind did have an off-Broadway run, however, and won an Obie award for the author.

Trouble in Mind (1955) is actually a play within a play. We are at rehearsals for Broadway-bound Chaos in Belleville which the White director, Al Manners (Graeme Somerville), calls an “anti-lynching” play. In fact, Manners gave up a lucrative Hollywood contract in order to direct Trouble in Mind because he feels it’s important, given the tenor of the times. The Civil Rrights movement, after all, is in its first stirrings in the Jim Crow South.

It is a racially mixed cast, and both Blacks and Whites are Equity members. But even though they are equal in the eyes of their union, they are not equal in the parts they get to play on Broadway. In fact, Black veteran actress Wiletta Mayer (Nafeesa Monroe) has played more mammies than she can count.

At one point, she points out that fellow Black actress Millie Davis (Kiera Sangster) has played all the flowers — Magnolia, Gardenia, Hyacinth — which Millie counters with the fact that Wiletta has performed all the jewels — Pearl, Opal, Ruby. The third Black veteran, Sheldon Forrester (David Alan Anderson), is consigned to perform the woolly-haired old man who whittles away in his rocking chair.

In my research into Childress and Trouble in Mind, I found many references to the fact that the playwright, critics and cultural gurus consider the play a comic drama. One writer even used the word “hilarious”. Satiric yes, but funny, not by a long shot.

Within the first few minutes, Wiletta, Millie and Sheldon are telling newbie John Nevins (Kaleb Alexander) how he should behave with a White director. This is where my trouble in mind began, and continued right through to the explosive ending.

It is absolutely cringeworthy to hear the Black veterans rhyme off the rules. Whenever the director makes a joke, even if you don’t think it’s funny, you laugh. You are obedient at all times. You never show initiative, and so on. Young John, however, has trouble accepting this advice. He’s a modern young man, and it’s the 1950s, after all.

The roles of the two Whites in the cast of Chaos in Belville are equally as stereotypical as the Blacks. Bill O’Wray (Patrick Galligan) portrays a prejudiced judge who ultimately tries to stop the lynching, while Judy Sears (Kristi Frank) is his kindly daughter who begs her father to help.

In real life, Judy is a young woman who totally supports the Civil Rights movement. Bill, on the other hand, never goes out to lunch with the Black cast members, because he feels uncomfortable. It seems everyone is always staring at the racially mixed group.

There are two other White characters in Trouble in Mind. Eddie Fenton (Neil Barclay) is the crusty stage manager who doesn’t relate to the cast at all. Henry (Peter Millard), the elderly doorman and general factotum, also suffers from Manners’ bullying and sympathizes with the Black cast. He equates his Irish ancestors and their fight for independence, with the Blacks and their struggle.

Thus, the scene is set for the conflict between Wiletta and Manners. To avoid spoilers, I’ll explain it this way: between Act 1 and Act 2, Wiletta has rethought her role as the potential lynchee’s mother, and tries to explain to Manners how her lines should be changed.

The peerless director of Trouble in Mind, Philip Akin (who is Black), has put character front and centre, even, perhaps to the point of over-acting. Nonetheless, the in-your-face performances do focus our eye even more strongly on the stereotypes these Blacks are forced to play if they want a Broadway career — Uncle Toms and Aunt Jemimas as one actor describes them. In short, Trouble in Mind is a protest play, and Childress, who was an actress first, starting writing plays specifically to give Blacks better roles.

The acting is very strong, particularly from Somerville, who gives a performance of a lifetime, although there really isn’t a weak link in the cast. Everyone contributes to the taut, tense dynamic that Akin has established. The dialogue is relentless.

There is a lot going on in the play, besides the main plot as described above. The fact that the unseen author of Chaos in Belleville is White perpetuates the stereotypes. The Blacks are not uniform in their support of Wiletta’s rebellion. The relationship between John and Judy is a cause for concern in certain quarters, and these themes are just the tip of the iceberg that Childress unleashes at the audience.

Kudos to costume designer Ming Wong, whose 1950s outfits for everyone, especially for the women, are absolutely eye-catching. Rachel Forbes’ set, Mikael Kangas’ lighting, and Ryan de Souza’s period music all contribute to the rawness of the production, and I mean rawness in the best possible sense.

Perhaps the greatest sadness for me is that mostly everyone involved in the rehearsals for Chaos in Belleville starts off with the best of intentions, but as you peel away the layers underpinning Childress’ script, the rot within is exposed.

And finally, it has always been my theory that the excavation plays, as I call them, are usually the Shaw Festival’s long suit. For many years now, they have usually showcased a lost play each season, which have proven to be among the most interesting of the bill of fare. Alice Childress’ provocative Trouble in Mind joins that long and distinguished list.

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Paula Citron
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