Last weekend’s verdict in the Trayvon Martin murder case thrust American racism back under the spotlight, setting off a deluge of reactions all over the country. Heartbreak and frustration gave way to protest marches and rallying cries determined to somehow bridge the nation’s painful, deep-seeded cultural divides.
Newspapers, websites, TV stations and dinner tables were all still roiling with conversation about this historical moment when Intiman opened Trouble in Mind on Wednesday—a play written in 1955 by Alice Childress, a celebrated black playwright, actor and author. (The play earned Childress the first Obie ever awarded to a black woman.) The show is also directed by Valerie Curtis-Newton, who leads both the performance program at the University of Washington and the Hansberry Project, a black theatre company partnered with Intiman for this production.
Trouble in Mind takes place on Broadway in 1957, beginning as the cast of a new play gathers for its first rehearsal. As the group wanders into the theatre one at a time, we discover that many of them have worked together before. The six-member cast includes four black and two white actors, among them seasoned professionals and green first-timers, all hoping to be part of a hit production that will boost their careers and keep them employed.
The play within the play is about a young Southern black man in danger of being lynched for pursuing his voting rights. Its script is riddled with dimensionless stereotypes that glorify its white characters and reduce its black characters to servants, maids and mammies. The experienced actors, we learn, are used to these limited roles; the younger actors are more naive.
It’s awkward material for a group of Civil Rights-era artists, made worse by their pompous, willfully oblivious white producer/director, Al Manners (an aptly infuriating Tim Gouran), who insists on indulging the script’s shallow stereotypes while demanding that the cast members dig deep to find their truth and motivation. In Act I, Manners instructs longtime performer Wiletta (Tracy Michelle Hughes) to sing a spiritual in the script. She delivers a soft, gentle, kind rendition because she knows that’s what he wants. Manners proceeds to provoke a deeper motivation in her, which yields a more powerful, commanding performance from Wiletta—and he immediately tells her it’s all wrong.
The dynamics between these characters work on multiple levels. Between rehearsals, they compete for power and praise, wielding age, experience, gender, education, wealth, politics, nationality and, yes, race to gain favor over one another. And they reveal their own prejudices in the process.
Childress’ language flows with the resonant precision of poetry, every line layered with meaning. The themes of Trouble in Mind are big, but Childress often renders them in buoyant barbs and banter, turning jabs into laugh lines. “White folks can’t stand unhappy negroes,” the glamorous and salty Millie Davis (Shontina “Tina” Vernon) quips as the older black actors explain to the younger ones how to conceal any discontent or disagreement from the director. On opening night, each of the many laughs felt like a stress release for the audience, like comic relief from our current race reality.
Curtis-Newton and her entire ensemble have absorbed the writing with perfect pitch and pacing, never once dropping a cue. Burton Curtis turns in a powerfully empathetic performance as the theatre’s elderly Irish doorman—the character with the least power, but the most forgiveness in his heart. As a black, middle-aged stage veteran, Sheldon Forrester (G. Valmont Thomas), is the story’s Yes Man, a role he plays with an impressive balance of gravitas and hilarity. Skylar Tatro as the young, white Yale-educated Judy Sears, manages to be believably sympathetic to her black castmates, as well as to the audience. And Hughes anchors the show with a poignant emotional journey that starts with conformity and ends with courage.
The Trouble in Mind design team has created a richly textured world that includes gorgeous costumes, a beautifully detailed set and a few well-placed Miles Davis sound cues. It’s a world that’s intimately familiar, like the play itself, which underscores the play’s enduring relevance.
Tensions rise in the second act as Manners inadvertently pushes Wiletta to find her voice. She takes increasing umbrage with the play’s incredible ending, in which her character is supposed to surrender her son to a lynch mob—Just tell ’em you’re sorry!—rather than help him escape. Wiletta doesn’t buy it—and she doesn’t think the audience will either. She implores Manners to change the ending, to make it believable. Manners shrugs her off again and again, and when she won’t relent, he grabs her by the cheeks like a child and says, exasperated, patronizing, “Now don’t you start thinking!” As if that’s supposed to shut her up.
It doesn’t. Wiletta refuses to stay quiet, pushing the debate into uncertain, uncomfortable territory. Manners professes that people are people, people are all the same, this is the brotherhood of man but ultimately reveals his own racism before disappearing into his office, cancelling rehearsal and leaving the production hanging in the balance. Even then, Wiletta holds tight to her dignity.
Much of the play’s conflict arises from this diverse group of people struggling to understand each other and work together. But Trouble in Mind reaches its climax in a conflict about the truth—knowing it, acknowledging it and sharing it. It’s uncanny how much Childress’ words continue to resonate, but heartbreaking that her words still fit, that our culture has progressed so little since 1955.
For the first time in years, I wept through a curtain call, brought to tears by the forceful, steady truth of this production. It’s the kind of experience that reminds me why theatre is necessary: to bring us face to face with our collective humanity.
Trouble in Mind runs through Sept. 15 as part of the Intiman Theatre Festival. Pictured above: G. Valmont Thomas (Sheldon Forrester) and Tracy Michelle Hughes (Wiletta). Photo by Chris Bennion.