Though it took Alice Childress’s 1955 play TROUBLE IN MIND nearly 70 years to make its Broadway debut at Roundabout Theatre Company last year, the play is remarkably prescient. Director Ron OJ Parson helms TimeLIne’s production of Childress’s play about racial and gender dynamics on the Great White Way. TROUBLE IN MIND focuses on Broadway actor Wiletta Mayer, a middle-aged Black woman cast in the “anti-lynching” play CHAOS IN BELLEVILLE. While the show has a predominantly Black cast, Wiletta soon discovers that the play’s white male director has little concept that CHAOS IN BELLEVILLE is a deeply problematic and misrepresentative play.
What’s more, in an instance of life imitating art, Childress was posed to become the first Black female playwright to have her work produced on Broadway—but she was pressured to give TROUBLE IN MIND a happier ending and title. Childress refused, and rightfully so. It’s both fascinating that we’re now able to experience TROUBLE IN MIND for the first time in Chicago in 2022, but it’s also chilling how relevant the play still is.
Set in 1957, TROUBLE IN MIND opens on the first day of rehearsal for CHAOS IN BELLEVILLE, introducing us to Wiletta (Shariba Rivers) and her castmates. Wiletta is quick to tell Broadway newcomer John Nevins (Vincent Jordan) that he should laugh at everything the director says and that he should never reveal how he truly feels about the play if he wants to make it on Broadway. From the beginning, Childress shows us that her protagonist is tired of Broadway’s racial politics. While Wiletta dreams of making real art and portraying complex characters—a desire she fervently expresses to the sweet yet harried Irish stage doorman Henry (charmingly played by Charles Stransky)—she’s also learned how to play the game so she can continue to book paying gigs as an actor. She laments to her fellow castmate Millie (Tarina J. Bradshaw, who balances comedy and pathos) that they’ve often been relegated to playing flowers and jewels throughout their careers. That is, Millie’s characters have often had names like “Gardenia” and Wiletta’s past roles have included “Opal” and “Pearl.”
The soft-spoken Sheldon Forrester (a beautifully nuanced Kenneth D. Johnson) wants to help keep the peace in the rehearsal room, but he reveals in a stunning Act Two monologue that he’s borne witness to a real-life lynching—and the play doesn’t get the details right. Jordan Ashley Grier makes nice work of Yale drama graduate Judy Sears, who’s well-intentioned but also blind to her privilege. Grier gives the character a solid arc; she’s not just ignorant, but we see how Judy’s eyes are opened to the deeply problematic situation in the rehearsal room over the course of the play. Adam Shalzi takes on the role of the try-hard stage manager Eddie. Guy Van Swearingen lends his talents to the role of Bill O’Wray, a soap opera star who’s concerned with his own optics but not with the actual implications of the play in which he’s starring.
Childress creates a familiar rehearsal room dynamic between the characters, and TimeLine’s ensemble gives off the rapport of those looking to quickly bond but also unsure exactly how to relate to one another at moments. The play finds its climax in the act two stand-off between director Al Manners (Tim Decker) and Wiletta. While Decker shows slivers of Al’s darkness and prejudice in the first act, it all comes to a head in the second act. Thus, TROUBLE IN MIND takes a few beats to get to its main point, but once Al and Wiletta start going head-to-head in act two, it’s impossible to look away. Decker is disquieting and entirely convincing as Al; he’s immensely believable in his unlikeability. Decker cuts the image of the director who truly believes that whatever he says goes and that there’s no way he could possibly be interpreting the play wrong. This is especially true when he advises Wiletta not to think and goes so far as to suggest that her performance would be better if she weren’t thinking but rather “justifying” her character’s actions. Decker delivers these lines without flinching.
As Wiletta, Rivers is the true beating heart of this production. She has an absolute star turn. Rivers’s Wiletta has a quiet power to her; she always holds herself in high esteem, but her moments aren’t all big. The power sometimes lies in the ways in which Wiletta feels forced to constrain herself even when she has more to say, and Rivers finds just the right moments to let it all out. She finds command in both the more intimate moments, such as her congenial exchanges with Henry, and in her moments of rage, in which she refuses to stand down when Al attacks her.
TROUBLE IN MIND is a blistering portrait of racial and gender politics on Broadway. While the play does meander through the first act and part way into the second to really get at the heart of it, Childress’s immense character study also provides a fascinating and all too timely glimpse into the dynamics of commercial theater.
TimeLine Theatre Company’s TROUBLE IN MIND runs through December 18 at 615 West Wellington. Tickets are $42-$57. Visit timelinetheatre.com.
Photo Credit: Liz Lauren
Originally published on BroadwayWorld.com