Trouble in Mind Review - Racial Politics in the Spotlight

Pioneering playwright Alice Childress is the only African-American female to have written, produced, and published plays for four decades. In 1956, she was the first African-American woman to win the Obie award for the best original off-Broadway production, TROUBLE IN MIND. Her first professionally produced play, TROUBLE IN MIND was a success and ran for 91 performances after its debut in New York City in 1955. Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum is current presenting this thought-provoking piece in 2017, over 60 years after its premiere.  Of course, things have changed – or have they?

Earnestine Phillips and Rodrick Jean-Charles - Photo by Ian Flanders

TROUBLE IN MIND is a hilarious backstage drama which touches upon some very controversial issues – which remain controversial to this day. A play-within-a-play, “Chaos in Belleville” tells the story of the African-American mother of an innocent lynch victim. Written, produced, and directed by an all-white crew, “Chaos” purports to portray the black experience in America in its gritty entirety.  How can black actress Wiletta Mayer (Earnestine Phillips) possibly question the play’s realism and gut-wrenching truths? Thereby hangs the tale.

Earnestine Phillips and Max Lawrence - Photo by Ian Flanders

After 25 years on the stage, Wiletta had learned the ropes of African-American survival in the theater. It is the 1950’s, and racism is king. Wiletta decides to mentor a young African-American cast member from her home town. Given contemporary stereotypes, she counsels John (Max Lawrence) to “go with the flow” – even if he has some misgivings. To keep laughing and conceding any and all points to the white bosses.

Gerald C. Rivers - Photo by Ian Flanders

Then something strange happens. As Wiletta rehearses for “Chaos,” she suddenly decides that she will no longer “settle” and demands to be heard. That her opinion matters, and that the play is not telling the real story of black life. Clearly, this is not a stance which will please her white director, Al Manners (Mark Lewis) and leaves the Caucasian cast members (Judy Durkin, Christopher W. Jones) surprised and confused. The other African-American cast members (Constance-Jewell Lopez, Gerald C. Rivers) just want to avoid conflict and collect a paycheck. Now chaos truly reigns.

Max Lawrence and Judy Durkin - Photo by Ian Flanders

Director Ellen Geer has done a bang-up job of helming this production with an eye towards truth while maintaining the “political correctness” of the day. The cast also does a powerful job of delineating the various characters in the story – both black and white. Special kudos to star Earnestine Phillips, multiple NAACP Award-winner, for her portrayal of a powerful woman ahead of her time.

Mark Lewis, Gerald C. Rivers, Constance Jewell Lopez, Earnestine Phillips, and Judy Durkin - Photo by Ian Flanders

An aside worth noting. After the success of TROUBLE IN MIND off-Broadway, Alice Childress was approached about presenting the play on Broadway. Just one small hitch, however. She must write a happier, less ambivalent ending. In her own version of Sophie’s Choice, Childress decided that she would not soften the message or follow the 1950’s formula for success. Thus, TROUBLE IN MIND never reached Broadway – and Childress lost her chance to become the first African-American female playwright produced on Broadway.

Constance Jewell Lopez, Mark Lewis, and Earnestine Phillips - Photo by Ian Flanders

TROUBLE IN MIND runs through September 30, 2017, with performances at 7:30 p.m. on Friday (8/11/17), Saturdays (7/29/17, 8/5/17, 9/9/17, 9/16/17, and 9/30/17), and Sundays (7/30/17, 8/13/17, 8/20/17, 8/27/17, 9/3/17, and 9/24/17). Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum is located at 1419 N. Topanga Canyon Blvd., Topanga, CA 90290. Tickets are $25 (upper tier) to $38.50 (lower tier) with discounts for seniors, students, military veterans, teachers, and AEA members. For information and reservations, call 310-455-3723 or go online.   

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