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There is, the woman tells the man waiting in the darkened theater, a secret to success in a racist world and a prejudiced profession. That secret is laughter.
"White folks can't stand unhappy Negroes," veteran stage actress Wiletta Mayer tells newcomer John Nevins. "So we laugh."
Laughter is almost guaranteed at the Black C.A.S.T.'s North House production of Trouble in Mind. But the laughter itself is troubled--it masks very real issues of injustice and racism felt by Blacks. But the laughter and gravity are deftly handled through strong characterization and an adeptly presented text.
Trouble in Mind, an adaptation of a play written by Alice Childress, addresses the prejudices of American society in the 1950's. The play utilizes the viewpoints of a director, his assistant, and a racially-mixed group of Broadway actors as it explores the nature of relationships between Blacks and whites. But in many ways, Trouble in Mind is a play about putting on a play.
Wiletta is the black actress who realizes that she can no longer pretend to be satisfied with the entertainment industry, which limits Blacks to roles as meek slaves in Civil War productions. Trouble in Mind chronicles Wiletta's resolution to challenge the director and change a scene she believes is not faithful to the slave experience.
Ketanji Brown is a commanding stage presence as Wiletta. Brown's gradual and fearful discovery of her own strength, of her inner need to rebel, is extremely convincing. This discovery is pivotal in the second act, and it is to Brown's credit that she can carry the action so effectively.
Also convincing is the character of Millie Davis, a smart-mouthed young Black actress, well-played by Mychelle Shegog. Millie has most of the play's funniest lines, which she delivers in an inimitable no-nonsense style.
Millie's comments are dry and pointed, destroying the illusion of equality in show business--an illusion which enables directors to stage performances that stereotype Black actors.
Millie expresses her annoyance with the limited breadth of roles offered to Black stage performers by saying, "I'll wear cotton dresses, but I'll be damned if I'll wear another bandana."
And early in the play, Millie tells Wiletta that most of her past roles have been slaves who bear the names of jewels or flowers like "Opal, Pearl, or Magnolia." The play within this play proves to be no different. Millie and Wiletta are cast as "Petunia" and "Ruby."
John Copeland skillfully plays Sheldon Forrester, a elderly Black actor with a gift for deadpan. Copeland is effortlessly hilarious. Offering the most realistic portrayal of the show, Copeland's mannerisms and accent are right on par.
Sheldon's ridiculous sense of timing and utter lack of tact are the source of countless laughs, but Sheldon is also the source of the play's most poignant moment--the scene in which he recalls witnessing a lynching when he was 9 years old. Copeland plays the scene with a powerful sincerity.
Sheldon, whose part in the play within the play never goes beyond whittling a stick and mumbling "yessir," "nossir," and "Iff'n you want, sir," is a character well aware of his position as a Black actor. He knows his talent is wasted by prejudiced directors who know he needs the work.
"We don't mind takin' low, because what we mind won't buy beans," Sheldon tells Wiletta.
The prejudiced director confronted by these three well-drawn Black characters is the suave Al Manners, played by Jed Sexton. Manners believes he is racially enlightened because he has agreed to direct a performance with Black actors. But his impatience and condescension toward the actors betray his sham egalitariansism. In one scene, Manners asks Wiletta to "do him a favor and don't think," implying that her ideas are not worthy of his consideration.
Sexton forcefully renders the stereotypically tough Broadway director/mogul. Sometimes too forcefully for Trouble in Mind's intimate staging. When he portrays Manners' rage at Wiletta's rebellion, Sexton often shouts so loud that Wiletta is not the only one cringing.
Barring a few uneven moments, Trouble in Mind does a remarkable job of bringing alive the racial tensions of the 1950's, even in the limited context of Childress' Broadway scenario. The play strikes a delicate balance between laughter and despair, and that perhaps, is its greatest strength. It is not straight drama, nor straight comedy, but as Sheldon would put it, "a slice of life."
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