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Trouble in Mind: A Play That Defies Time at the Arena Stage

10/5/2011, 12:48 p.m.

When playwright and book author Alice Childress originally staged "Trouble in Mind" in 1955, the two-act inside look at the making of a play within a play, was considered radical and revealing. In 2011, the revival of this long lost treasure is still eye-opening and relevant.

"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.