Reviewed by Judy Richter
The year is 1957, and the civil rights movement is stirring. A Broadway theater is planning to stage what is believed to be an anti-lynching play -- albeit by a white playwright. Black and white actors assemble for rehearsals with the white director and the white stage manager. Thus begins Aurora Theatre Company's production of "Trouble in Mind" by Alice Childress. Although race relations have made significant strides since the play was written in 1955, some of the issues it raises may still be relevant today.
Most of the issues are raised by Wiletta Mayer (Margo Hall), a veteran black actor who has learned how to get along with white directors and playwrights. However, she is growing weary of playing black caricatures rather than characters who are black. When she objects to the final act of "Chaos in Belleville," the play in which she has been cast, she throws everything into turmoil. Her belief that her character's actions don't reflect reality, along with the condescension and righteousness of the director, Al Manners (Tim Kniffin), is more than she can take.
Therefore, her colleagues have to decide what they're going to do. They include three other black people, such as Millie Davis (Elizabeth Carter), a veteran like Wiletta, but she likes to flaunt her husband's purported wealth. She and Wiletta exchange some very catty, very funny remarks. Also a black veteran is Sheldon Forrester (Rhonnie Washington), who will go along with just about anything because he needs the job. His story of seeing a lynching when he was a boy is the most riveting scene in the play. The black contingent of the cast is completed by John Nevins (Jon Joseph Gentry), a handsome, up-and-coming young actor.
The two white actors in the play-within-a-play are Judy Sears (Melissa Quine) and Bill O'Wray (Michael Ray Wisely). The attractive blonde Judy comes from a wealthy family and has just graduated from the Yale drama school. This is her first professional job. Bill O'Wray plays her father in "Chaos in Belleville." The cast of "Trouble in Mind" is completed by Patrick Russell as Eddie Fenton, the stage manager and glorified gofer, and by Earll Kingston as Henry, the kindly old Irish doorman.
Black actors are cast more frequently today, especially as theater companies dedicate themselves to color-blind casting and to presenting more ethnically diverse playbills. Nevertheless, it's probably fair to say that black actors and other actors of color are not as well represented as they'd like to be in some forms of entertainment.
As for "Trouble in Mind," it's well written with a nice mix of humor and drama along with clearly defined characters. The Aurora production is well cast, but director Robin Stanton might be pushing a bit hard for laughs. The penultimate scene, in which Wiletta enacts the kinds of roles she despises, is rushed and somewhat strident, diminishing its power.
Still, it's a fine way for Aurora to open its 19th season, especially with the backstage set by Eric Sinkkonen, lighting by Kurt Landisman and composition and sound by Chris Houston. Callie Floor's costumes are noteworthy for the business attire (suits for the men, dresses for the women) worn by the actors and director. They're true to their time, but they're a far cry from the casual outfits one would see during early rehearsals of most plays today.