Wiletta Mayer may not have trouble in mind when she arrives to rehearse her leading role in what everyone hopes will be Broadway's next big hit, but by the end of Trouble in Mind, now onstage at Two River Theater Company, she's done just that—in spades!
Penned in 1955 by Alice Childress, the first African American professional playwright to have a play produced in New York City, Trouble in Mind uses a standard play-within-a-play structure to explore the way people talk—or don't talk—about race, while creating a hilarious backstage drama about clashing egos, how artists work, who we are and who we want to be.
Set in the mid-1950's, the plot revolves around a supposedly ground-breaking production of a drama entitled Chaos in Belleville; it's ground-breaking because it is the first to feature African American actors in prominent roles, and it addresses the serious subject of lynching. Indeed, the liberal director, Al Manners, thinks the play will arouse sympathy for the Negroes' plight and thus help the cause of integration.
Maybe it will, but the goings-on in the rehearsal studio show anything but sympathy for, in this case, the black actors' experiences. For one thing, the script is riddled with stereotypical characters, whereby the black characters must affect the dialogue and servile demeanor of "darkies"—quite insulting to these talented actors! Directing his first Broadway play (he's only made movies in Hollywood), Al Manners is a big fan of Method acting and is given to using unorthodox methods to elicit a "real" performance from his actors; Wiletta bristles when he rudely accuses her of "acting" and asks her not to "think" about her role or the play. As the rehearsal progresses, the black actors wrestle—to varying degrees—with their roles as written, but when Wiletta, finally fed up with what she has been asked to do in this well-meaning but dreadful play, decides to speak up, all hell breaks loose. Will her fellow actors support her, at the risk of their much-needed jobs? Can a frank conversation about race exist? Will such a dialogue bring about change? [Above: from left: Steven Skybell (Al Manners), Hayley Treider (Judy Sears), Amirah Vann (Millie Davis), Brian Russell (Bill O’Wray), McKinley Belcher III (John Nevins), and Brenda Pressley (Wiletta Mayer); all photos by T. Charles Erickson]
Brenda Pressley (right) is magnificent as Wiletta, a talented actress thrilled by her first Broadway starring role. In the opening scene, she counsels a young black actor to kiss up to the white folks by laughing at their jokes and agreeing with their pronouncements, behavior that has the young man labeling her an Uncle Tom. Pressley brings a naturalness to Wiletta's evolution from one who "goes along to get along" to finally working up the nerve to question what she is being asked to do and say—setting off an emotional and explosive argument about power, fear and equality. She is a real joy to watch.
Her terrific performance is matched by Steven Skybell as the clueless, self-absorbed, self-important, Al Manners, a man whose problems with his ex-wife and son (who needs orthodontia and psychiatric therapy)—not to mention his need to raise money to mount the play—often take precedence over those of his actors. Skybell rants, raves and blusters until he finally loses it in the penultimate scene, revealing a dirty little secret about the reality of the race relations that exist under the veneer of civility—onstage and off.
Amirah Vann brings sassy verve to the role of Millie Davis, an actress often cast in marginal parts; her riff on the names given to black female characters is a stitch! McKinley Belcher III's young John Nevins is appropriately starry-eyed, and Hayley Treider as the young white ingénue Judy Sears, supportive of integration, is as annoying as anyone "protesting too much" would be. If she mentions her "mommy and daddy" in Bridgeport one more time, you'll want to slam her. As Bill O'Wray, the only other white actor in the cast, Brian Russell displays a cringe-worthy tone-deafness in the way he talks to his fellow cast mates, and listening to him recite his speech by the segregationist candidate Mr. Reynaud is hilariously scary. Jonathan David Martin's stage manager Eddie Fenton is deliciously inept, every director's nightmare.
Robert Hogan has a small role as Henry, the septuagenarian doorman, but he makes quite the most of it. His rousing speech about Irish Home Rule is both entertaining and inspiring. And he is the only character who offers the frustrated Wiletta comfort and support without condescension; he's there for her and she, I think, is positively affected by his treatment of her.
Rounding out this stellar cast is Roger Robinson (left) as the older black actor Sheldon Forrester who refuses to upend the proverbial apple cart; he needs this job so he can pay rent and attend to his physical needs, so he'll do whatever he's asked, even whittling wood. However, his eye-witness account of a lynching stops the action cold. Not a sound could be heard onstage or in the audience. His riveting delivery, sans histrionics, sent the theater temperature plummeting as a collective shiver ran through the opening night crowd.
Jade King Carroll has directed with a steady hand and a good dose of spirit, so that this character-driven play never sinks into caricature, the dialogue remains convincing and clever, and the curve balls are never signaled beforehand. Alexis Distler has created a more than credible backstage, strewn with detritus of earlier shows, its messiness a metaphor for the messiness of the time's race relations. Nicole Pearce's lighting is unobtrusive; just witness the increase in light onstage as the stage door ostensibly opens! And Karen Perry's costumes, appropriate to the era, telegraph a great deal about these characters, from John Nevins' snappy double-breasted blazer and tie to Millie's beautiful suit that shows off her economic status (her successful husband wants her to stay home instead of work).
That Two River Theater Company has decided to produce this mostly forgotten play is especially prescient, given the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the speech President Obama gave last week lauding President Lyndon Johnson's efforts to get it passed, efforts that, as he said, made it possible for him to assume the highest office in the land. Wiletta Mayer (and Alice Childress, I think) would have been proud to hear it, but that these conversations continue more than a half century later reminds us all that we still have work to do.
Trouble in Mind will be performed at the Rechnitz Theater, 21 Bridge Avenue, Red Bank, through April 27. For information and tickets, call the box office at 732345.1400 or visit online at www.tworivertheater.org.