"Trouble in Mind"
Yale Repertory Theatre, New Haven
“Trouble in Mind,” as a play and production, is certainly a mixed bag—fascinating in some respects, but also disappointing.
Written by African-American playwright Alice Childress, the 1955 play deals with a group of actors in rehearsal. The play-within-a-play is “Chaos in Belleville,” an anti-lynching piece written by a white writer and set in the South. On one level, “Trouble in Mind” offers an entertaining and revealing view of backstage antics, as the power play between a bullying director and his cast unfolds.
But it goes beyond director-actor problems. On another level, Childress’s piece is a serious look at race relations in the ‘50s. The mostly-African-American cast responds to the white director’s orders with Uncle Tom replies. (They need the work and are eager to advance their careers.) But ultimately the differences explode, and all the issues—techniques, truths, and differing views of racism—come to the fore.
Specifically, “Trouble in Mind” centers on one Wiletta Mayer, a black actress who longs to be valued as a serious professional. She struggles with the awkward Actors Studio techniques forced upon her by the director, as she plays the mother of a fugitive boy. The director urges her to reach within herself, to find her emotions, to justify, justify, justify. In the process, he gets more than he bargained for. She finally questions the whole concept of the play. “It’s just not true,” she insists, and asks “Would you send your son to be killed?”
Unfortunately, E. Faye Butler’s interpretation of Wiletta does not work. Despite her awesome credentials (five-time Joseph Jefferson Award-winner), Miss Butler has not managed a working relationship with Yale’s acoustics. More often than not, her lines are lost, even (and maybe especially) when she is shouting. The actress achieves her most moving moments when she pours her heart into a Negro spiritual.
As to others in the cast, John Guillory and Natalia Payne are most appealing as the two young newcomers to theater. As these characters reach out to each other in friendship, they give hope of a future rapport between races. Kevin O’Rourke, as the director, has a commanding stage presence. But he has the difficult task of changing personality midstream, thanks to Childress’s text. Initially, he is a swaggering braggart—and villain to boot. But he is called upon to reveal human, caring traits in the second act. In all, O’Rourke manages well with this unlikely switch. Others who turn in competent work are: Starla Benford, Thomas Jefferson Byrd, Daren Kelly, Garrett Neergaard, and Lawrence O’Dwyer.
On the whole, Childress had made a significant contribution to theater and to race relations. She had offered honest views in an era when African-Americans were still stereotyped on stage and screen. And for that reason alone “Trouble in Mind” is worthy of a revival.
-- -Irene Backalenick
November 2, 2007