Theatre Review: Trouble in Mind is Still Cutting, Painful, Funny, and Fresh
The song “Trouble in Mind,” written by Richard M. Jones in 1924, is one of my favorite standards, with a melody that claws the back of your brain and won’t let go and lyrics where joy and grief come together in the harsh sunlight of irony like a train-wreck. “Trouble in mind, I’m blue / But I won’t be blue always / ‘Cause the sun’s gonna shine / On my backdoor, someday … If you see me laughin’, / I’m laughin’ just to keep from cryin’.” It’s been done by Sam Cooke, Johnny Cash, Fats Domino, Ella Fitzgerald, Tennessee Ernie Ford, Archie Shepp, Nina Simone, and many others. The allusion was well-chosen by Alice Childress for her eponymous satire, which is as funny as it is painful and walks that same line of euphoria and pain through life’s bitter ironies.
Childress might be best known these days as a novelist for work like A Short Walk and A Hero Ain’t Nothin’ But a Sandwich. But she was the first black woman playwright professionally produced on a New York stage and the first black woman to win an Obie award – for the original production of Trouble in Mind in 1955. It’s not performed often these days; I’d never seen a production and I hadn’t read it since college. So it’s a gift and a delight to have the OSU Department of Theatre present such a sharp, well-crafted production, and the play feels as relevant today as in the ’50s.
Trouble in Mind is a backstage drama about rehearsals leading up to the premier of a Broadway play about a lynching. Everyone comes to the table with something to prove or something to escape or both. The star, Wiletta (Tameisha Peterson), has already had success in films, revues, and cabaret acts; when we first see her the doorman, Henry (Colton Weiss) is disappointed to hear she won’t be singing in this, only acting. John (played well by David Johnson) is the son of a childhood friend of Wiletta’s; having already done Off-Broadway work and taken acting classes, he comes with the confidence and cocksureness that will get you far if it doesn’t tip over into arrogance – and sometimes if it does.
Millie (a righteous Akia Williams) is younger than Wiletta and hoping to catapult to a similar level of stardom. She represents a transitional period in a couple of senses – her husband doesn’t want her to work, but she wants to and has to anyway; she wants to bring her fashion-sense and sexiness to her roles, but finds herself again and again in the “shapeless cotton dress” her supporting characters always seem to wear; some of this is chafing against expectations at that point in life, but some of it is generational. Sheldon (Corey Lipkins Jr.) is older than Wiletta – he’s a well-known actor but still tied to vaudeville, and it’s implied that a recent lack of work has reduced him to living in a boarding house.
Judy (a charming Jennifer Geiger) is one of two white actors in the cast. She’s just out of Yale Drama and has the naïvete of a precocious child – someone who’s always gotten a pat on the head for being smarter, and crumbles whenever a long-held belief is questioned. The other white actor, Bill (John Quigley), is a man of some success – soap operas, commercials, other TV and film; it’s said proudly “he works all the time.”
Manners (Daniel Shtivelberg), the director, is the most broadly drawn, a nervous Hollywood washout directing his first Broadway play and deep in hock from a divorce. Eddie (Mike Writtenberry) is his assistant and perhaps the youngest person in the play – in age, in ambition, in wanting to soak up everything the world has and right now.
Manners is determined to integrate the newest, freshest ideas (at the time) about acting into this play using tricks like reading scenes out of order and discussing characters’ motivations.
This first act sets the balls in motion. Wiletta gives John advice on how much and when to laugh to keep white directors and producers on your side, and brushes against his assurance that “I intend to go straight to the top,” and his concept of theatre as something grand, something to be believed in, not just believed. Manners, at this juncture, is a gum-cracking, gin-soaked cliché, with good intentions but never forgetting to look out for number one.
These introductory scenes are hilarious parodies of the exaggerated vanity seen in show business. While getting big, truthful laughs, they showcase Manners’ racism (his condescending tone with his predominantly black cast), misogyny (his disdain for Judy’s education, his repeatedly referring to Wiletta as “sweetheart,” his ham-fisted sexual advances), and classism (his frustration with the aging Irish doorman).
The end of act one brings these threads together when Wiletta is asked to sing, then grilled relentlessly on “what she was thinking” and the character’s motivations behind the gospel song she’d chosen, a song from her childhood. When she then tries to sing from a truer place of confusion, it establishes Manners’ ugly feeling that she’s not a person to him at all, she’s a novelty. He thinks she’s practically an idiot savant – “You hit perfection without thinking” – and that colors all their interaction through the rest of the play while also being a reminder that sometimes honest feeling makes bad art, sometimes over-thinking leads to something obvious, and sometimes just doing a job is what the piece requires.
The second act opens with Bill delivering one of his character’s speeches from the play-within-a-play – Chaos in Belleville – and this hammers home that it’s hilariously terrible. It’s long on platitudes and obvious allusion whenever a white man speaks, and on supposedly-self-referential riffs on racist shucking and jiving whenever the black characters interact. For all the talk about “genius” and “importance” and “the play no one wanted to touch” in the beginning (before we’d heard more than snippets), there’s a human story of everybody-in-this-together for a paycheck and of trying to inject some real truth, to make a silk’s purse out of this sow’s ear.
The second act draws out the fissures of race and generations. There’s an inevitability in the way the older actors look down on the younger actors’ seeming arrogance, like they don’t need to play the game. The youths need to play a subtler version and haven’t yet been crushed by the world. The world changed so quickly and also so slowly as the modern age started to take hold (and that hasn’t changed) that even people a few years apart, like Sheldon to Wiletta to Millie, despite sharing a common ground of understanding, approach the world differently. Their reactions are shaped by what they’ve seen, and people react differently; every person born between 1896 and 1920 doesn’t think or process exactly the same way.
Three speeches near the end of the play deconstruct and transform every impulse and theme made clear earlier in Trouble in Mind. Sheldon’s speech about seeing a lynching as a child provides Lipkins a chance to spread his wings, and it’s a standout in a play full of highlights; he so clearly commands playing a character at least 45 years older than he is, with all the contradictions that entails, and does it so physically that I heard audible gasps from the audience. After being so funny and ingratiating throughout the piece, it’s a joy to see more to the character.
Wiletta’s anger at being condescended to, not taken seriously, and told to “justify” and find “the truth” slams up against the play-within-a-play’s inherent falsehood, and is the highlight of the show. Peterson’s lacerating rant about mammy roles and her sickening realization that the white writer wants the white man to be the hero of the piece and her to be the villain is painful to watch in the good, bracing way. Peterson’s comedic timing and ability to switch mood is like watching a fine young boxer come into her own; watch for whatever she does going forward.
Manners’ snapping under Wiletta’s justified assaults is a tour de force – watching a man’s layers of civility and gentility burn off as he crashes down to earth is an ugly, uncomfortable thing to watch, but sometimes it’s what needs to happen. This doubles as a brilliant, spot-on parody of the “what about the (white) men” self-justifying smarm that never goes away completely and has been back in the headlines of late.
Special attention should be paid to the guest director, OSU’s artist in residence Melissa Maxwell, who directed the premier of Carl Djerassi’s Taboos Off-Broadway and worked with the University of Texas, and is also an acclaimed writer and actor. She gets stunning performances and, despite the weight of the material, keeps the balls moving. The play never drags or gets bogged down; she keeps our attention where it needs to be.
It’s disheartening that Trouble in Mind feels like it could have been written today. The omnipresent threat of state-sanctioned violence. The dehumanization of anyone not exactly like the narrow definitions of “norm.” The difficulty of making art that accurately reflects life. But it’s heartening to see works of exquisite empathy and righteousness that stand the test of time as well as this does, and it’s a wonder to see students are not only getting exposed to them, but doing them justice. Anyone who loves theatre should see this production of Trouble in Mind; you might not get another chance anytime soon.
Trouble in Mind plays at the Roy Bowen Theatre (Drake Performance and Event Center) through March 12, no show Monday, March 9. For tickets, visit Theatre.osu.edu.