Saturday, August 28, 2010

Trouble in Mind: ☼ ☼ ☼ PLUS!

The play is great but this fact, gleaned from the press-pak, is astonishing: Playwright Alice Childress was the first black woman in America to have a play professionally produced. What year was that? 1850? 1910? No, 1952.

Small surprise that three years later, after a very successful off-Broadway first run of her new play "Trouble in Mind," Broadway beckoned. They told her they would love to run her play on the big stage if she just wouldn't mind making...a few changes.

They wanted to take her play-within-a-play -- a story about black actors fighting to keep an anti-lynching play from being watered down with white stereotypes about black people -- and water it down, turning it into a feel-good drama. Childress refused and the show never got to Broadway.

You couldn't write irony like this, because nobody would believe it.

The new Aurora Theater production of "Trouble In Mind" feels fresh, which is to say that racial divides in America may not be as cast in concrete as they were in Childress's time (she died at age 78 in 1994), but they are certainly still there. The show does not feel like a period piece, it feels like America 2010, and if you don't think so just look at Al Manners.

Tom Kniffin is perfect. His Al Manners, the white director, is the patronizing and sexist creature everyone in the audience recognizes. He makes us squirm. Perhaps in 1955 a white audience would not have found him quite as odious -- and he certainly has his own troubles -- but today we see him more clearly. Certainly the black actors in the play-within-the-play will do anything he says, since all are desperate just to have a job. As the excellent Rhonnie Washington (as actor Sheldon Forrester) says, "I still owe the doctor. I need this job."

Sheldon's monologue about a lynching he saw as a small boy (he is the only one in the room who actually ever saw one) is memorable -- Alice Childress wanted to make sure we all felt the true horror, in this case seen through the eyes of a nine-year-old. Equally memorable is the show's moral center, Willeta, when she decides to turn up the volume on racial stereotyping, for the benefit of Al Manners.

Meanwhile, the banter between Wiletta (Margo Hall), Millie (Elizabeth Carter), Jon (John Joseph Gentry), Judy (Melissa Quine) and Sheldon continues unabated. Each actor is trying to do what Al Manners tells them to do, but we can see all they really want is to stay employed.

The ending is a little ambiguous, and we wish we could know a little bit more about Wiletta and Sheldon. Act One is the true rarity in modern theater: it's too short. When the lights come up for intermission you can't believe it. That's how Alice Childress wanted it -- you find yourself immersed in her world.


The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "Trouble in Mind" Three Stars Plus! This same rating could be suggested by ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG but there is no real BANGLE of PRAISE here. No actor nor piece of dialogue stands out from the rest. But "Trouble" is more than a ☼ ☼ ☼ play, if not quite as nuanced and fleshed out as ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼.

Alice Childress grew up in the Harlem Renaissance and is the author of the novel "A Hero Ain't Nothin' but a Sandwich." Perhaps it is finally time to pay this ground breaking writer more attention.

"Trouble in Mind"
Aurora Theater
2081 Addison St., Berkeley
EXTENDED through Oct. 3

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