Berkeley’s wonderful Aurora Theatre possesses an intimate thrust stage, employs local area actors, and often makes tremendous theater, despite a few stinkers every now and then. (Last year’s season-closer, Stephen Karam’s Speech & Debate, counts as one of the stinkers.)
They’ve opened their new season with a largely forgotten work, Alice Childress’ 1955 Trouble in Mind. Childress was an African-American activist, author and playwright, perhaps best known today for her 1973 young-adult novel A Hero Ain’t Nothin’ but a Sandwich. (She is reputed to be the first woman playwright to win an Obie award for Trouble in Mind in 1956, the first year of the honors, but she isn’t listed on the Village Voice’s official Obie website.) She was a member of the American Negro Theatre, working in many capacities for the organization, even acting on Broadway in their production of Anna Lucasta. (The Aurora’s program notes state that she garnered a Tony nomination for this, but, again, she’s not listed on the official Tony website.)
The murky details of her early theatre career underscore that she isn’t as remembered as she perhaps ought to be. Trouble in Mind, a scintillating, but ultimately, I think, unsuccessful play, indicates that a real injustice has been done in allowing her theatrical writing to fall to neglect.
The show opens with the first rehearsal of a mid-1950s Off-Broadway play about a lynching in a Southern town. Actress Wiletta Mayer (the redoubtable Margo Hall) is the first to arrive, exchanging pleasantries with the rather dim Irish doorman, Henry (Earll Kingston). She’s soon joined by John Nevins (Jon Joseph Gentry), a young black actor hoping for stardom from his role, the lynching victim whose mother is portrayed by Wiletta. She presumes to give him advice about working with white people: laugh at their jokes, don’t question their assumptions. “White folks can’t stand unhappy Negroes,” she says, with a bitter laugh. John largely ignores this, but agrees that the script at hand, the play within the play, isn’t great. However, he’s more interested in the craft and technique of acting, of making his role live. Millie Davis (Elizabeth Carter) and Sheldon Forrester (Rhonnie Washington) enter next. Sheldon is a journeyman actor cast as the father, and Millie knows that she’s playing another shuffling Jemima in the role of family friend, but dreams of real elegance. (“I’ll be damned if I wear another bandanna,” she snaps.) The white actors are Judy Sears (Melissa Quine), a naïve Yale product whose Bridgeport parents are terrified of her working in the big city, and Bill O’Wray, a genial man who’s nevertheless ill at ease around the black actors.
This is all presided over by the director, Al Manners (Tim Kniffin) and the young stage manager Eddie Fenton (Patrick Russell), both white. Manners has worked with Wiletta before and he’s affectionate towards her, but also paternalistic and condescending. (The irony of his name is a little heavy-handed.) Often coming across as an artistic blowhard, Manners is desperate for the play to be a success, and he pushes the actors to “justify” and “motivate” their characters’ actions. Millie and Sheldon do their best to convince Al they’re being authentic, John attacks and analyzes his role trying to convince himself he’s being authentic, but Wiletta is adrift. She gets stiffer and more awkward in the part as the rehearsals progress. As Al snipes at her more and more, she’s pushed to the breaking point.
Childress has fantastic powers of observation, coupled with a knowing sense of humor, and it’s these that make the play work to the extent that it does. For a good portion of the play she expertly handles the crosscurrents of race, sex, class, and theatrical heirarchy, and how each complicates the others. Wiletta jokes that Millie is always playing roles with flower names (Magnolia, Lily), while she gets all the roles with jewel names (Pearl, Opal). Then they find that this time out Millie will be Petunia, and Wiletta, Ruby. When John gets too friendly with Judy, Millie warns him, “You’re the thing her parents are terrified of.” Childress deftly exposes the myriad hypocrisies and deceptions race engenders in both the theatrical and real worlds. (For Childress, the theatrical world is an intensification of the real world.)
Trouble in Mind is lively, funny, and smart, but ultimately, it’s a thesis play, and therein lies its failure. Wiletta finally rebels and points out the absurdity of the show they’re rehearsing—that it’s not an anti-lynching work, since it hinges on the innocence of the lynching victim, the subtext being that if he were actually guilty, lynching would be fine. She denigrates the preposterousness of the actions assigned to her: She’s supposed to be ironing while pleading with the farm owner to send her son to jail so he’ll be safe. A black mother in the South, she argues, would know that jailing would just ensure the mob knows right where to get at the object of their fury, and she certainly wouldn’t be ironing at such a time. But during these monologues, she becomes hyper-eloquent, speaking dense chunks of text. She’s no longer speaking in Wiletta’s voice, she’s now the playwright expounding on injustice. When Manners loses his temper in response, he becomes Childress’ straw man, exhibiting a shocking degree of racial hatred that’s only slightly less simplistic than the moment in Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing when the Danny Aiello character spits out the N-word. What was a largely successful characterization falls apart.
Still, the Aurora’s production is a worthy evening of theater. I was dismissive of director Robin Stanton’s talents after seeing her work on Speech & Debate. (Her manner of eliciting energy from her young cast was to have them yell at each other.) Here, she’s working with an infinitely better script, and her crew of actors does impressive work, expertly mining the many layers of humor, anger, bitterness, resignation, self-deception, and resentment. There’s also a great sense of how important theater is to each of these people.
Stanton does misstep in one instance. When Sheldon relates the details of an actual lynching he witnessed as a boy, she dims the lights and has Washington push the horror of it—we’re almost listening to a ghost story told ‘round the campfire. A more matter-of-fact tone would allow the audience to experience the horror better, rather than manufacturing it for them. Stanton also places O’Wray leaning against the back wall, looking away from Sheldon, as if the story bored him. No matter what O’Wray’s discomfort with blacks might be, he’d pay attention to this.
Hall is largely astonishing. When Wiletta struggles in her role, Hall has her flash a look of suppressed rage at Manners as he unhelpfully barks instructions as her. When she proclaims to Henry, “I want to be an actress,” there’s both a fierceness and a desperation. Angrily burlesquing her part at one point, she waddles across the stage in a wide-legged, down-low shuffle. That the final scenes don’t especially work is the playwright’s fault, but Hall is amazingly expert with the subtleties of the shifts elsewhere. She makes palpable Wiletta’s frustration and anger as she demands to be taken seriously as an actress and as a human being.
Kniffin, too, is fine in his difficult role. Excepting the final scene, his Manners is sympathetic even when he’s ridiculous, a man who doesn’t know the extent of his own flaws.
Design-wise, Eric Sinkonnen’s set is just about perfect, a bare theatre with exposed rigging and inadequate radiators on the wall, the actors sitting around a rough table in mismatched chairs. The costumes, by Callie Floor, also successfully evince the period and support the individual characterizations.
Despite its unsuccessful denouement, Trouble in Mind is a fascinating work, a convincing look at the lot of a black actor in the mid-50s. Childress exhibits an incredible eye for detail, a great ear for dialog, and a ferocious intellect. You leave this production with a hunger to look at her other work and a deep admiration for the cast and crew.
Trouble in Mind plays from now until September 26 at the Aurora Theatre, 2081 Addison Street, Berkeley, 94704. For more information, call 510-843-4822 or visit auroratheatre.org.