What happens when a dream deferred finally comes true, but with unacceptable conditions? That is the moral dilemma faced by well-regarded middle-aged African-American singer and aspiring actress Wiletta Mayer, played by Kathryn Hunter-Williams in the current PlayMakers Repertory Company production of Alice Childress’ timely backstage drama Trouble in Mind, written in 1955 but no less relevant in 2015. Is Wiletta Mayer willing to play a character who is an offensive racial stereotype — a caricature, not a character — in order to make her long-awaited Broadway debut, or will compromising her principles prove too steep a price for her conscience to pay?
PlayMakers Rep regular Kathryn Hunter-Williams really sinks her teeth into this, the juiciest role of her local career. A plum acting and singing part in a white liberal dramatist’s new “colored play” about a lynching in the Jim Crow South is the metaphorical carrot for Wiletta Mayer; the implausibility of her character’s actions in not protecting her son as a lynch mob boils up around the big house where she works is the metaphorical stick — and the sticking point that makes playing this role as written too onerous for Wiletta’s conscience to bear.
Hunter-Williams slips beneath Wiletta Mayer’s skin, and makes her crisis of conscience palpable as she tiptoes, first in painful, self-conscious baby steps and later in bold strides toward an inevitable showdown with authoritarian first-time Broadway director Al Manners (portrayed by Schuyler Scott Mastain with self-righteous fire blazing in his eyes). Manners and the never-seen playwright are the kind of knee-jerk liberals that folksinger Phil Ochs mercilessly skewered in “Love Me, I’m a Liberal.” Their attitudes toward the less fortunate, particularly people of color, are invariably patriarchal and condescending.
But Wiletta Mayer is unafraid to make waves during the rehearsal process for a problematic play, entitled Chaos in Belleville. When she repeatedly defies He Who Must Be Obeyed, her fellow African-American cast members are aghast. As insensitive as this script and their director are, this moonlight-and-magnolias melodrama is a hefty meal ticket for all of them, and promises months of lucrative employment in a play that White America is sure embrace.
While Kathryn Hunter-Williams and Schuyler Scott Mastain, as Wiletta Mayer and Al Manners, vigorously trade verbal brickbats, Tony Award® winner Roger Robinson quietly steals the show with his deliberately lowkey and carefully choreographed performance — complete with a Bill “Bojangles” Robinson-like soft shoe — as veteran actor Sheldon Forrester. Robinson’s Forrester is a survivor who knows how to succeed in a cutthroat profession, and is willing to swallow his pride to preserve a fat paycheck. Roger Robinson, whose vivid portrayal of rootworker Bynum Walker earned him a Tony for Best Performance by a Featured Actor in a Play for the 2009 Broadway Revival of August Wilson’s Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, plays the charming chameleon Sheldon Forrester as a man of unexpected depth who has his own lynching story.
Suzette Gunn is a spitfire as sharp-dressed African-American actress Millie Davis, who believes that if you have some of the finer things, flaunt them; and Carey Cox is endearingly vulnerable as colorblind novice actress Judy Sears, who invites her black fellow performers to visit her well-to-do parents home in Bridgeport, CT, with no thought of the waves in their segregated neighborhood, circa 1957, when President Dwight D. Eisenhower had to send in federal troops to Little Rock to force the Arkansas governor to desegregate that city’s public schools.
Myles Bullock handles the devolution of college-educated African-American actor John Nevins from an articulate independent thinker into a knee-jerk supporter for whatever director Al Manners wants with admirable dexterity; and Jorge Donoso is appropriately nebbishy as Manners’ nephew, Eddie Fenton, whom the director employs as a stage manager for the show. Jeffrey Blair Cornell and David Adamsonadd nice cameos as curmudgeonly Broadway veteran Bill O’Wray, who doesn’t even bother to conceal his prejudices, and Henry, the theater doorman and former backstage electrician, who is one of Wiletta Mayer’s biggest fans.
Although Trouble in Mind has its problematic passages, it is well worth seeing, and just in time for Black History Month. Kudos to PlayMakers Repertory Company for kicking off the 2015 portion of its mainstage season with this eye-opening play by Charleston, SC-born playwright Alice Childress.
SECOND OPINION: Jan. 26th Raleigh, NC CVNC review by Kate Dobbs Ariail: http://cvnc.org/article.cfm?articleId=7207; Jan. 26th Raleigh, NC News & Observer review by Roy C. Dicks: http://www.newsobserver.com/2015/01/26/4506353_theater-review-childress-trouble.html; Jan. 25th Chapel Hill, NC Daily Tar Heel (student newspaper) review by Sarah McQuillan (who awarded the show 4 stars): http://www.dailytarheel.com/blog/canvas/2015/01/trouble-in-mind-review and Jan. 23rd preview by Sarah McQuillan: http://www.dailytarheel.com/blog/canvas/2015/01/trouble-in-mind-preview; Jan. 22nd Durham, NC Herald-Sun preview by Dawn Baumgartner Vaughan: http://www.heraldsun.com/lifestyles/x1351411059/-Trouble-in-Mind-A-play-within-a-play-about-racism-and-theater (Note: You must subscribe to read this article); Jan. 21st Chapel Hill, NC Chapelboro.com audio interview with Kathryn Hunter-Williams, conducted by Aaron Keck: http://chapelboro.com/news/arts/playmakers-trouble-mind/; and Jan. 21st Durham, NC Indy Week mini-preview by Brian Howe: http://www.indyweek.com/indyweek/trouble-in-mind/Event?oid=4317311. (Note: To read Triangle Arts and Entertainment’s online version of the Jan. 21st Triangle Review preview by Robert W. McDowell, click http://triangleartsandentertainment.org/2015/01/trouble-in-mind-is-a-hilarious-drama-about-racial-tensions-during-rehearsals-for-a-broadway-play/.)
PlayMakers Repertory Company presents TROUBLE IN MIND at 7:30 p.m. Jan. 27-30, 2 and 7:30 p.m. Jan. 31, 2 p.m. Feb. 1, 7:30 p.m. Feb. 3-7, and 2 p.m. Feb. 8 in the Paul Green Theatre in the Center for Dramatic Art, 120 Country Club Rd., Chapel Hill, NC 27514, on the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill campus.
TICKETS: $15 and up. Click here for special ticket prices for UNC students, other college students), UNC faculty and staff, and U.S. military personnel and their immediate families.
BOX OFFICE: 919-962-PLAY (7529), firstname.lastname@example.org, or http://www.playmakersrep.org/tickets/single.
GROUP RATES (15+ tickets): 919-843-2311, email@example.com, or http://www.playmakersrep.org/tickets/groupsales.
SHOW: http://www.playmakersrep.org/troubleinmind and https://www.facebook.com/events/636062986505918/.
UNC NEWS SERVICES NEWS RELEASE: http://uncnews.unc.edu/2015/01/06/playmakers-presents-trouble-mind-starting-jan-21/.
PRESENTER: http://www.playmakersrep.org/, https://www.facebook.com/playmakersrep, https://twitter.com/playmakersrep, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/PlayMakers_Repertory_Company, and http://www.youtube.com/user/PlayMakersRep.
PRC BLOG (Page to stage): http://playmakersrep.blogspot.com/. VENUE: http://playmakersrep.org/aboutus/paulgreen.
NOTE 1: All shows are wheelchair accessible, and assistive-listening devices will be available at all performances.
NOTE 2: There will be an All-Access Performance performance, with sign-language interpretation and audio description by Arts Access, Inc. of Raleigh, at 7:30 p.m. on Tuesday, Jan. 27th.
NOTE 3: There will be FREE post-show discussions with members of the creative team following the show’s 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 28th, and 2 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 1st, performances.
NOTE 4: There will be a $25-per-person ($15 for graduate students) special program, entitled African Americans in Theater and Popular Culture After 1945, from 9 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. on Saturday, Jan. 31st, presented in partnership with the UNC Program in the Humanities.
NOTE 5: There will be an Open Captioning Performance at 2 p.m. on Saturday, Jan. 31st (for more information, click http://playmakersrep.org/outreach/allaccess/opencaption).
NOTE 6: The Lucy Daniels Foundation and the North Carolina Psychoanalytic Society will sponsor FREE post-show “Mindplay” discussions after the 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 7th, and 2 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 8th, performances.
Study Guide: http://www.milwaukeerep.com/education/documents/troubleinmind.pdf (Milwaukee Repertory Theater).
Alice Childress (Charleston, SC-born playwright, 1916-94): http://archive.csustan.edu/english/reuben/pal/chap8/childress.html (PAL: Perspectives in American Literature: A Research and Reference Guide: “Chapter 8: Alice Childress” by Paul P. Reuben), http://www.lortel.org/ (Internet Off-Broadway Database), and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alice_Childress (Wikipedia).
Jade King Carroll (PlayMakers Rep guest director): http://ibdb.com/person.php?id=492571 (Internet Broadway Database), and http://playmakersrep.org/performances/embed_artist.aspx?id=e673d5bb-0659-4f3f-8123-c392607ffa7c (PlayMakers Rep bio), and https://www.facebook.com/jade.k.carroll (Facebook page).
Robert W. McDowell has written articles for The News & Observer, The Raleigh Times, Spectator Magazine, CVNC, and Triangle Arts and Entertainment, all based in Raleigh. He edits and publishes two FREE weekly e-mail newsletters. Triangle Review provides comprehensive, in-depth coverage of local performing-arts events. (Start your FREE subscription by e-mailing firstname.lastname@example.org and typing SUBSCRIBE TR in the Subject: line.) McDowell also maintains a FREE list of movie sneak previews. (To subscribe, e-mail email@example.com and type SUBSCRIBE FFL FREE in the Subject: line.)