TimeLine Theatre's talent for staging plays from the past that speak to the present continues with “Trouble in Mind,” Alice Childress' insightful 1955 backstage drama about racism and sexism on Broadway.
Directed by Ron OJ Parson and featuring a solid cast headed by the remarkable Shariba Rivers, who exudes intelligence and strength, the play at first seems dated, even creaky, until the continuing relevance of issues like equality, power, representation and appropriation sinks in. It also has a compelling backstory twist, a case of life mirroring art — and not in a good way.
Childress was the first Black woman to have a play professionally produced in New York City, and she would have beaten Lorraine Hansberry (“A Raisin in the Sun,” 1959) as the first to have a non-musical play on Broadway were it not for her refusal to compromise her values.
“Trouble in Mind” opened Off-Broadway in '55 at the Greenwich Mews Theatre and was such a critical and popular success that producers were interested in a Broadway transfer. But they wanted script changes to make the play more palatable to commercial audiences, and Childress wouldn't make them. “Trouble” wouldn’t have its Broadway premiere until 2021 at the Roundabout Theatre, part of an overdue revival of Childress’ work and reputation.
Back in Chicago, TimeLine's production is set in 1957 and benefits from the intimate staging showcasing Caitlin McLeod's scenic design of the backstage at a Broadway theater, Brandon Wardell's lighting, Christopher Kriz's subtle music and sound design and, most of all, Christine Pascual's meticulous costumes.
The action begins with the cast of Black and white actors assembling for the first rehearsal of “Chaos in Belleville,” an anti-lynching Southern drama by a white playwright. First to arrive is Wiletta Mayer (Rivers), a seasoned Black actress frustrated by a lifetime of playing mammies, maids and other racist caricatures beneath her abilities. She's the one who will ultimately stand up for herself at the risk of a job she needs, but at the outset she's willing to go along with the system. She's warmly greeted and praised by the old Irish doorman Henry (Charles Stransky), once an actor but now in reduced circumstances.
Next through the door is John Nevins (Vincent Jordan), a young Black actor learning the ropes, mainly from Wiletta who initially advocates an opportunistic approach, telling him to “Remember, white folks can't stand an unhappy Negro.” Satire pervades the early scenes, and some of it is quite funny, while a little falls flat.
The other actors include Sheldon Forrester (Kenneth D. Johnson) and Millie Davis (Tarina J. Bradshaw), both of whom are Black, and Judy Sears (Jordan Ashley Grier), a Yale-educated white actress in her first Broadway show. Bill O'Wray (Guy Van Swearingen), a jaded older white actor, shows up in the second act.
The mood in the room tenses when the white director Al Manners (Tim Decker) blows in, trailed by his put-upon assistant Eddie Fenton (Adam Shalzi). Al is an overbearing bully who berates and abuses everyone around him, and Decker captures his brusque manner well as he rushes around snapping his fingers impatiently, yelling at his actors and prodding them to give more emotional performances in a piece that turns them into stereotypes.
Al is creepily over attentive with Judy and condescending toward the Black actors. He thinks of himself as a liberal, but when Wiletta insists that the script they're rehearsing calls upon her to behave in a way no person would, his true colors show. She wants changes but, even though Sheldon gives a harrowing account of having actually seen a lynching as a child, Al won't accede. “The American public doesn’t want to see you the way you want to be seen,” he tells Wiletta. He believes that a Broadway audience will only sympathize with helpless Black people if they don't fight back, and in truth, he can only deal with them when he has all the power.
Wiletta, who can be viewed as a stand-in for Childress, won't back down, and “Trouble in Mind” ends with an impasse. This isn't very satisfying dramatically, but it does cause us to pause and think about how little has changed in American theater in the last six decades.