Set against the Civil Rights Movement, Trouble in Mind opens Aurora Theatre’s 19th season in captivating fashion. Nary a special effect or even a set change, the production is driven by intelligent dialog and characters whose actions and motivations are multi-layered, and truthful. A jack-hammer is not required. By the end, we’re moved and left to question race, opportunity and societal progress in America. But, is playwright Alice Childress’ play as relevant today as it was when it debuted in the mid-50s?
A cast of black and white actors attempt to mount a production of a progressive new play; they rehearse, discuss lines and characters, and trade barbs. The play-within-a-play is a clever device that elevates the material beyond traditional racial narrative.
“White folks can’t stand unhappy negroes.”
Al Manners, the name-dropping, back-slapping director of the mixed-race cast is played by Tim Kniffin, who I last saw in a solid, neurotic performance at Magic Theatre’s An Accident. The part here suits him even better. He’s cocksure, wants his coffee on time, and cajoles the actors to do it his way, at least for the first few days. Kniffin craftily employs parrot-like head jerks and bobs to add unspoken nuance to lines and reactions. In one particularly memorable scene, he gives queues using gestures and eye contact to his stage manager (Patrick Russell) who struggles to synchronize canned applause to a soap-box speech.
The rest of the cast is equally superb. Jon Joseph Gentry plays up-and-comer John Nevins who may or may not have starred in previous roles as a child. Bill O’Wray (Michael Ray Wisely) is a patriotic American, Millie Davis (Elizabeth Carter) mostly agreeable, Judy Sears (Melissa Quine), a doey-eyed Southern Belle (“I went to Yale Drama.”), and Henry (Earll Kingston) is the stalwart and very Irish theater manager who brings the coffee and bonds with a performer after-hours.
“The truth is simply whatever you can bring yourself to believe.”
Levity in the first act eventually gives way to the stewing anger that clouds perception and belief. The love between a mother and son, in the shadows of civil angst, means different things to different people. But does being white mean that life is a fraternity devoid of obstacles?
The performances in Trouble in Mind are uniformly high calibre, but two in particular stand-out.
Rhonnie Washington provides some of the play’s most powerful comic and dramatic moments as Sheldon Forrester, an easy-going father with a gift for the one-liner. He sits quietly in a chair while others perform in front. “Am I still whittling my stick!?” he decries. Then heart-pounding silence enshrouds the Alafi Auditorium as he recounts a lynching story. No mere mortal can absorb this striking monologue without feeling chills and pangs of despair.
Then there’s Margo Hall who delivers what has to be one of the best performances in recent memory here in the Bay Area. Her Wiletta Mayer is a fearless woman that finally refuses to succumb to the stereotypes (“character roles!”), and the affected–white men telling the African-American story. In Hall we have an actor so convincing and so committed to every line and moment, that even a Lucasfilm effects team could not diminish her resolve.
Trouble in Mind reminds me of another exemplary Aurora production: Awake & Sing! from the 2009 season. Both are stripped down shows, set against troubled times (the great depression, and the civil rights movement, respectively), with relationships and characters that appear at once aligned, and yet so painstakingly divided.
Those that might be turned off by spending an evening of theater at a show dealing with such weighty subject matter will be surprised. The entertainment factor here is remarkably high, with laughs through-out. Comic timing is flawless–these actors define chemistry.
From the 1955 review in the New York Times, “This is an original play, full of vitality: it is well worth the trip downtown.” Indeed, some things never change.
Later, as we headed down 880 back to San Jose, I asked Loni if the story by Alice Childress was still relevant today. After all this is 2010, not the 50s. Could we still learn about race, society and half-truths after 55 years of progress? Loni reminded me that President Obama is a Muslim. Ah, yes, Trouble in Mind: We need you.
Trouble in Mind
Aurora Theatre Company, Berkeley
4.5 out of 5 stars
by Alice Childress
Directed by Robin Stanton
Starring Margo Hall *, Earll Kingston *, Jon Joseph Gentry *, Elizabeth Carter *, Rhonnie Washington *, Melissa Quine, Tim Kniffin *, Patrick Russell *, Michael Ray Wisely *
Through September 26, 2010
* Appear courtesy Actors’ Equity Association
- Trouble in Mind was optioned for Broadway, but even after two years of re-writes never opened. According to Alice Childress, “They had me rewrite for two years” but were never satisfied with the results because she refused to give them the “heart-warming little story” they wanted. (source: Plays by American Women, 1930-1960 by Judith E. Barlow, 1970).
- The Civil Rights Movement continued into the 1960s and finally ended in 1964 with the Civil Rights Act outlawing racial segregation in schools, public places and employment (Rebecca Witt, “The 1950s: Separate But Equal?”).
- Trouble in Mind won the 1956 OBIE Award for Best Original Play.
- Aurora’s remaining 2010-11 lineup: Palomino (Oct-Dec 2010), Collapse (Jan-Mar 2011), The Eccentricities of a Nightingale (Apr-May 2011), Metamorphosis (Jun-Jul 2011).
- This year, Aurora is honoring Tennessee Williams’ 100th birthday. Per Tom Ross, Artistic Director, all of the Script Clubs will be comparing a play by Mr. Williams with the play on their stage.
- Aurora Script Club: A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams – Monday, September 20, 7:30pm.