Trouble in Mind by Alice Childress
Closing the Hartford Stage Season
By: Karen Isaacs - Jun 16, 2023
You may be surprised to learn that Trouble in Mind, the play closing the Hartford Stage season, was written in the mid-50s. It was the first full-length play by Alice Childress whose career encompassed acting and writing both plays and novels.
The play deals with topics that are major points of discussion today both in our society and the theatrical world: representation, authenticity, sexism, and workplace bullying
Trouble in Mind which runs through Sunday, June 18 is a play-within-a-play. A cast of mostly black actors assemble for the first day of rehearsals of a new play, Chaos in Belleville, that focuses on a black mother and her son during a period of racial unrest. Each desperately wants and needs this job.
Childress sets the start of rehearsals as Fall, 1957 – the year when the Little Rock schools were desegregated, and the National Guard had to be called in to protect the black students. The play they are rehearsing is set in the Deep South and, according to the director, is relatively contemporaneous.
Before the rehearsals begin, we see the cast assemble; all except John are established performers: Wiletta, Sheldon, and Millie. They tell him how to act around the white director – from laughing at the jokes to always agreeing: they complain about the stereotyped roles they must play. Millie says that in a recent play, she kept repeating “Lord, have mercy.”
Both John and Judy, a young white actress, are new to the business. This is her first professional job. Each has studied acting, unlike the other three. Later we meet Bill, a journeyman actor who portrays the father of Judy’s character.
The production team is white – from the old Irish doorman, Henry to the downtrodden stage manager (Eddie) to the director, Al.
While Chaos in Belleville is supposed to show and promote a more positive point of view, in fact, the white author is still using the same stereotypical roles. Wiletta is playing a servant, as is Millie, and Sheldon who is Wiletta’s husband. Job is their son, more educated and less willing to “know his place.” The two white characters are Carrie (Judy) the daughter and Renard, her father (Bill). The daughter (Carrie) argues with her father to be more kind. When Wiletta’s son (Job) tries to vote, he is hunted by the Klan. His mother urges him to let Renard keep him safe in the county jail; instead, he is lynched.
From the beginning, tensions are high in the rehearsals. Al, the director (played by John Bambery) is himself a stereotype. He is more of a journeyman director with some minor Hollywood and New York credits. While he tries to show a convivial “we’re all in this together” vibe, it quickly falls apart. He is demeaning to Wiletta, Henry, and Eddie, dogmatic, and angry. It quickly becomes apparent that he is not open to the actors offering suggestions.
The cast tries to play their parts to please Al. Sheldon is the “yes man” always agreeing loudly and criticizing the others. But while the others just swallow their ideas, Wiletta becomes more and more critical of the play itself. As she asks, would any mother send their son out to Renard; she would tell him to flee.
Al becomes increasingly angry about her misgivings and questions.
The climax is a scene in which he explodes; at the end of it, he says that he and his son would have nothing in common with Job and his mother.
The racial dynamics are clear; Al may think himself liberal but he treats the black performers differently than the white, and in fact does not believe there are similarities between him and his cast.
What is interesting is the history of Trouble in Mind. When it was opening off-Broadway in 1955, the producers demanded the ending be changed. Later when it was to go to Broadway, those producers demanded multiple changes. After two years, Childress gave up, saying it wasn’t the play she had wanted to write. She felt the changes were to make white audiences feel better about themselves. She continued to work on the play; these later revisions are what Hartford Stage is producing.
Director Christopher D. Betts has done a fine job with this piece. He makes the points without hammering them home. Does he let some of the cast overdo the stereotypes? Possibly yes, particularly with Sheldon, played by Michael Rogers. But Rogers gets his moment to shine. As they talk about lynching, Sheldon recounts seeing one as a young boy. It is a stunning moment.
Heather Alicia Simms as Wiletta is very good, but at times it seems her indignation about the play comes from out of nowhere.
One can point out many places where Childress herself uses stereotypes. Judy, played by Sarah Lyddan seems the typical naïve young actress who is clueless about other people’s lives, therefore often saying the wrong thing.
John, beautifully played by Sideeq Heard is too quick to emulate Al. I’m not sure it was realistic for John to be as unaware of how to cater to whites (or the need to) as he is; he was raised in Newport News, Virginia. This includes not seeing how his friendship with Judy would be interpreted.
But overall, it is a very good cast and a good production. Each character has a scene in which to shine.
At the end, you see the issues that Childress is raising; many are still resounding in today’s theater.
For tickets or information, visit HartfordStage.
This content courtesy of Shore Publications and zip06.com