In Alice Childress’s 1955 play Trouble in Mind, Red Bank’s Two River Theater has located a midcentury gem of insightful social critique, biting comedy, and deep emotion. Childress offers us an unvarnished, unromantic look into the delicate balance of race and art flowing through midcentury American theater, and the Two River production invites us to reflect on the degree to which any this has changed over the past fifty years.
Expertly acted and perceptively directed, Trouble in Mind entertains while also calling for introspection. A metatheatrical play about the theater, it opens on the first day of rehearsal for an apparently daring new interracial Broadway production . A hot-shot white director (Steven Skybell) has stuck his neck out in order to stage a play about southern race relations and their violent repercussions, and he has assembled a top-notch ensemble of black performers to embody what turn out to be the flat, canned, stereotypical characters straight out of the minstrel tradition.
The first interaction we see is between the top-billed black actress Wiletta (Brenda Pressley) and the theater’s white doorman Henry (Robert Hogan). Despite the fact that these two are separated by race, and that this distinction comes to dictate the tension of the play, this meeting is cordial and congenial. The same camaraderie emerges in later scene shared by these two characters when both are upset, suggesting that while race is the impetus for this play’s central problems, the social stratification extends ultimately to class and privilege. Wiletta and Henry can recognize in each other a shared struggle imposed by the powerful upperclass, and come together despite racial differences. This does not prove true for any other characters divided by race in the play.
In the opening scene the cast members arrive at rehearsal one-by-one, exchanging pleasantries and, in the case of the more experienced cast members with the two young newbies, offering sage advice. That mentoring begins almost immediately as John Nevins (McKinley Belcher III) arrives and meets Wiletta. John is new to the stage and unfamiliar with how to carry himself in the complex social system of professional theater run by white men. Wiletta gives him the salient bullet points: laugh at their jokes, do not appear too assertive, and always tread lightly.
Tones shift upon the arrival of Judy Sears (Hayley Treider), the young blonde star of the show who is rich, entitled, and more-or-less oblivious to the complexity of her social and professional life. She confesses that her audition was an embarrassing fiasco but, as Wiletta points out in a knowing tone, she got the job anyway. Judy’s shortsightedness is offset by the overbearing control of the white director Al Manners (Skybell): he is well aware of exactly who everybody is and where he believes they belong in the social strata of his theater, and he actively reinforces that oppressive structure.
The play’s central conflict emerges when Wiletta and Manners clash over a climactic plot point in their production: Wiletta’s character willingly sends her son off to jail ostensibly for protection from a lynch mob (a trip which is violently interrupted by that very lynch mob), and Wiletta believes that a mother would never do such a thing. The argument turns out to be less about the plot and more about an understanding of black humanity and emotion, something which Manners insists he understands before quickly revealing his blindness.
Childress’s insights in this play may seem to a contemporary audience familiar and unsurprising—racial tension and the hollowness of purported efforts for unity are nothing new in the theater or society. But the lasting value of Childress’s play is at least two fold. Firstly, Trouble in Mind offers engrossing evidence of the bravery of its playwright and a few others – such as Lorraine Hansberry – like her. Certainly these issues were well known even in the mid-1950s, but Childress’s courage in staging them so overtly should not be overlooked. Secondly, the play forces us to take a look at our world and society. It is the easy cop-out to treat the play as a cultural artifact of a time-gone-by, but the more challenging and rewarding response is to engage its questions, and recognize its contemporary resonance.
Ultimately, the core of the play is Wiletta’s struggle for a voice. Throughout the final third of the play, all Wiletta wants is a conversation with Manners to discuss the play, but Manners ignores her and insists that she squelch her concerns and go with what is given to her. Like the struggles articulated in the blues music tradition from which the play takes its title, Wiletta seeks the self-expression and identity constantly denied her by the powerful white presence in her life. Pressley’s stellar performance gives us a Wiletta who is by turns confused, annoyed, angry, despondent, and at last tentatively determined to find space for her voice and her self in a society that seems only to want parodies of both.