Alice Childress’ 1950’s race relations/backstage drama “Trouble in Mind” is a relatively obscure gem that deserves far more recognition. Director Vaun Monroe and his cast have done justice to it in this searing Artistic Home production.
It begins with aging African American character actress Wiletta Mayer, (Velma Austin) entering an empty theater. She has a love for the art form which she masks with well earned cynicism. All she’s ever been allowed to do has been to play black maid stereotypes. In the play within the play she is to take on the role of the mother to a young activist in the rural South. The fictional play purports to promote “an anti-lynching theme” but is in its essence just as shallow and racist as anything Wiletta has had to perform before. When the show’s domineering director Al Manners (John Mossman) pretentiously lectures his cast on trying to “justify” their performance choices, she starts to take it seriously and rebels against the hackish, patronizing material she’s been forced to do throughout her career. Her simple declaration at the end of the first act that she “always wanted to be an actress”, never having truly achieved this despite decades of performing, is quietly gut wrenching.
Manners is an amazing character both in writing and performance, a tyrant, bully and closet racist who deludes himself into believing he’s a crusading liberal. He is a nuanced, even sympathetic villain. While the play’s central conflict is between these two, there are seven other characters, each brilliantly realized.
Fifty years later, theatre is still a white man’s game, despite all the good intentions in the world. There are a lot of Wilettas out there who will never get the chance to show us what they can do, and we are all the poorer for it.