Arts & Culture

Theater review: Childress’ ‘Trouble in Mind’ still relevant today

Kathryn Hunter-Williams, left, as actress Wiletta Mayer, and Schuyler Scott Mastain as her director, Al Manners, in PlayMakers Repertory Company’s production of “Trouble in Mind,” by Alice Childress.
Kathryn Hunter-Williams, left, as actress Wiletta Mayer, and Schuyler Scott Mastain as her director, Al Manners, in PlayMakers Repertory Company’s production of “Trouble in Mind,” by Alice Childress. JON GARDINER

In 1955, Alice Childress was set to become the first African-American woman with a play on Broadway. But producers wanted her to change the bold ending to make “Trouble in Mind” more acceptable to whites. Her principled refusal stopped the production and the play lapsed into obscurity. It has come into its own recently, and PlayMakers Repertory Company’s fine staging reveals the insightful, groundbreaking work it was and its continued relevance for today.

It’s set in the mid-1950s at a rehearsal for a Broadway show with major roles for African-Americans, a rarity for the time. The white playwright and director think the plot about a Southern lynching will change audiences’ minds about racial injustices. But the black characters are old-fashioned stereotypes, their unrealistic actions filtered through a blinkered white perspective.

The black actors privately gripe about the situation but don’t dare protest, especially Wiletta, a song-and-dance performer thrilled with her first real acting job. The director encourages Wiletta to dig into her part’s truths, but she begins to realize how unbelievable it is and wants it changed.

Director Jade King Carroll gives the piece a snappy pace that brings out the biting humor, but still allows characters their proper dimension. She makes full use of Alexis Distler’s authentic-looking backstage setting, with Karen Perry’s striking 1950s costumes as further assets.

Kathryn Hunter-Williams commands the stage as Wiletta, making an intriguing journey from quiet acceptance to forthright defiance. Myles Bullock and Suzette Azariah Gunn infuse young actors John and Millie with new-generation sophistication and savvy, while Roger Robinson is amusing and moving as older actor Sheldon, who gets along by not rocking the boat.

Jeffrey Blair Cornell stands out for his chilling portrait of a prejudiced white actor worrying about his image working with blacks. As the director, Schuyler Scott Mastain subtly reveals real-world understanding beneath the surface insensitivity. Carey Cox’s naïve young actress, Jorge Donoso’s meek director’s assistant and David Adamson’s kindly old theater handyman round out the engaging cast.

Childress’ script falters somewhat in the second act with a lengthy speech and a repetitive slapstick scene that make their points long before finishing. But the ending pays off richly and reminds us how much still needs to change.

Dicks: music_theater@lycos.com

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