There have been numerous examples of plays and musicals that examine a disturbing and unfortunately timeless issue: racism. Some of these works, such as South Pacific and A Raisin in the Sun, were written decades ago though they are still considered to be influential classics.
While those theatrical pieces are produced regularly in the United States, a 1955 Off-Broadway comedy-drama, Trouble in Mind, deals with similar subject matter. However, Alice Childress’ script is not very well known. The show is so obscure, that there is not even a Wikipedia entry about the dramedy.
Apparently, Trouble in Mind would have been on Broadway if Childress had written an upbeat ending. She refused. A current production is running at the Moxie Theatre in the hopes of giving more exposure to this piece.
The entire story takes place on the stage of a Broadway Playhouse. A pompous director, Al Manners (Ruff Yeager), puts together a bleak tragedy entitled, Chaos in Belleville, which deals with violence and intolerance against African-Americans. The problem is that while Al believes that the production will promote equality, the tearjerker comes across as unintentionally offensive to most of the actors. No one is more outraged than Wiletta Mayer (Monique Gaffney), a performer who has faced a lot of unjustified prejudice because of the color of her skin. Tensions continue to boil between the cast and the director as the ensemble reads more of the script.
Admittedly, Trouble in Mind takes a while to get going. In the first part of Act 1, Gaffney plays Wiletta in an almost cartoonishly broad style. Gaffney might have intended to make the character seem larger than life, but she comes across as being too over the top. Eventually, Gaffney pulls back and she becomes more sympathetic to the audience.
Act 1 is fairly solid entertainment that mixes smart humor with uncomfortably serious exchanges usually fueled by Al’s sometimes-cruel behavior. With his imposing size, distinct voice, and expressive face, Yeager makes Al both hilarious and frighteningly domineering.
Some of the jokes are a little too repetitive, especially when the cast kiss up to Al. The point of these lighthearted moments is supposed to depict how blacks had to act in order to get ahead in show business. Yet, this concept is repeated so often, that it can feel like Childress is hitting spectators over the head with a sledgehammer.
Act 2 also has some issues as well. For a while, the second half is devoted to the ensemble rehearsing Chaos in Belleville. Not a lot of onstage action occurs, which makes it becomes hard to become invested in what happens to the artists and their experiences.
This is no fault of anyone involved with the Moxie’s interpretation. Most people in the world of theatre will relate to the way Executive Artistic Director Delicia Turner Sonnenberg depicts an early rehearsal. Sonnenberg creates a sense of authenticity as the fictional players try to make sense of the unusual tale.
There is also enjoyment in seeing supporting actors such as Cashae Monya, Vimel Sephus, Victor Morris, Nick Young and Samantha Ginn portray thespians who all have interesting and complicated backstories. They are entertaining to watch, even when the pace slogs.
The narrative starts to make an emotional impact when Sheldon (Morris) gives a harrowing monologue about a disturbing incident from his childhood. Morris’s handling of Childress’ prose is so harrowing, that viewers begin to feel his pain.
Trouble in Mind soon transforms into a no holds barred critique of bigotry with plenty of righteous anger to boot. This is when Childress’ storytelling is at its most chilling.
Trouble in Mind can be a bit of a slow burn, but the explosive payoffs make the journey worth taking. If nothing else, the rendition can initiate a lengthy discussion about how blacks have been portrayed in the arts throughout history.