"Trouble in Mind," currently at the Arena Stage's Kreeger Stage through October 23, is set in the rehearsals of a "race play," the genre of theater which perpetuated antiquated racial stereotypes featuring African American actors working within an integrated cast.
While such casts are commonplace now, in the pre-Civil Rights era of Broadway, those productions were lauded as ground-breaking since previously, theater would feature white actors in blackface playing the roles of African Americans.
In her debut at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for the American Theater, director Irene Lewis brings the comedic drama roaring back to life, starring E. Faye Butler, as lead actress Wiletta Mayer, a show business matriarch who routinely fills the bill as the mother figure, or in its stereotypical genre of the "mammy."
Fresh off of her role as Aunt Eller in Arena Stage's wildly successful rendition of "Oklahoma!", Butler brings a certain caustic humor to the role, supported by Starla Branford as Millie Davis, and Tony Award nominee Thomas Jefferson Byrd as Sheldon Forrester as the regular cast of these types of productions, with Marty Lodge playing Al Manners, the director of the fictional Southern play.
Titled "Chaos in Bellville," the fictional production comes loaded down with the usual roles; the mammy, the clueless slave girl played by Millie Davis and the shiftless field Negro convincingly delivered by Byrd, whose character Sheldon Forrester is all too resigned to the role.
Brandon J. Dirden, as John Nevins, is the newcomer, who completes the black cast as the tragic son of Wiletta's character, who un-coincidentally, is named after a jewel (in this case, Ruby) while the slave girl character always takes the name of a flower.
"Show business, it's just a business," Wiletta mockingly comments, "Colored folks ain't in no theater."
Dealing with an atrocious plot, underlined by Manner's insistence that the play is as fair and unbiased as he could get the writers to agree to, the cast, including Gretchen Hall as Judy Sears, who plays the slave owner's daughter, and Garrett Neergaard, as the plantation owner, runs through the lines in a lackluster manner, generating tensions throughout the rehearsal.
Some of the acrimony is relieved by Laurence O'Dwyer as Henry, the doorman and stagehand T. Anthony Quinn, whose lack of timing with a canned laugh track deflects Manner's overbearing and condescending attitude away from the cast. Ultimately, Wiletta Mayer's tolerance with the racial gags and misguided behavior gets the better of her, and she digresses into what can only be described as a mutiny, insisting that the plot is too unrealistic to pass muster with an audience.
"Trouble in Mind" was the first professionally produced play by Alice Childress, a pioneering African-American playwright whose works pre-dated that of renowned playwright and author of "A Raisin in the Sun," Lorraine Hansberry. Hansberry's work premiered in 1959. "Trouble in Mind" debuted on November 5, 1955, Off-Broadway in Greenwich Mews Theatre, New York City, and ran for 91 performances. It was directed by Childress herself, and she received an Obie Award in 1956 for best original Off-Broadway production, making her the first African-American woman to win the honor.
Though "Trouble in Mind" was a hit with audiences, in addition to garnering the accolades of critics, the production was doomed due to internal friction. Mirroring the problems encountered in the fictional "Chaos in Bellville," real life drama on the play included a clash between the original director and cast that prompted Childress to step in as director.
"Trouble in Mind," is a sardonically funny look at the racial constraints of theater in the past for African American actors and actresses, but has present day parallels with roles that are now being put forward by Hollywood, particularly in the recent movie release of Kathryn Stockett's "The Help." When "Trouble in Mind" was optioned for Broadway, the producers requested that Childress revamp the play to be more upbeat with a happy ending.
After many attempts that were dissatisfying to both Childress and the producers, the plans to take the play to Broadway were ultimately scrapped, and "Trouble in Mind" was assigned to relative obscurity until Irene Lewis brought it out into the open in Richmond's CenterStage 2007 production, which featured most of the same cast as appears in the Arena Stage incarnation.
"Theater is all about taking risks, and Alice Childress certainly took a risk in writing a piece like "Trouble in Mind" at such a turbulent pint in our nation's history," said Managing Director of Arena Stage, Edgar Doble. "Childress was ahead of her time, but the messages in the show are still just as meaningful today. We are excited to begin our season with this brilliant work by one of America's trailblazing playwrights."
In honor of Childress' birthday on October 12th, there will be a special program, "Black Face in the Media" on Wednesday, Oct. 12th from 6-7 p.m. Visit www.arenastage.org for tickets and showtimes.