Charleston, SC-born playwright Alice Childress’ Trouble in Mind, which premiered in November of 1955, won a 1956 OBIE Award for best original Off-Broadway production. (Indeed, Childress was the first African-American woman to win an OBIE.) The Agape Theatre Project’s production of this comedy-drama, directed by Kenneth E. Hinton, with technical direction by Artie Reese, runs June 20-30 in the Farrison-Newton Communications Building on the North Carolina Central University campus.
Trouble in Mind is a play about the friction encountered in the production of the fictitious Broadway play Chaos in Belleville. This play-within-the-play is about a racially charged series of events in the Jim Crow South — events that culminate in a lynching. We enter the world of Trouble in Mind as the first rehearsal is about to begin, and we leave this world with doubts about the future of their production of Chaos in Belleville. Will all of the cast members be retained? For that matter, will the play actually be produced?
In the interim, we meet a delightful cross-section of African-American actors, and learn about their uphill struggles to succeed. We gain insights into their various strategies for dealing with the stark realities of 1950s America and its theater industry. These actors must “act” in real life as well as on stage.
The script delivers a plethora of comedy as well as touching moments and social commentary. Some of the richest comic moments emerge as these actors assume their roles while rehearsing the play-within-the-play. Interestingly, some of the sharpest social criticism emerges at comic moments.
With a 100-watt smile, a velvet-throated voice, and a presence that commands the stage from start to finish, Lebone Moses is ideal for the role of Wiletta Mayer. A seasoned veteran of the stage who is delighted to be tackling her first Broadway lead, Wiletta has always been willing to “do what it takes” and is just as willing to advise and encourage younger actors. Conflict (inner as well as outer) arises when a certain white director begins mouthing the words “truth,” “justify,” and “integrity.”
Anyone who has ever met a full-of-himself, “my-way-is-best” director (who is earnest to the point of parodying himself) will delight in Joey DeSenna’s Al Manners. He pays lip-service to a demand for “honesty” from the actors, but balks when they honestly deliver.
Joey DeSenna and Lebone Moses demonstrate what happens when “an irresistible force meets an immoveable object.”
Kenneth Hinton’s Sheldon Forrester instantly wins the audience’s hearts. Quick-witted and clear-headed, he has an appropriate quip for every moment. But he is haunted by an experience form back before he was old enough to work in the cotton fields, an experience he shares only when he feels the others need to hear about it.
Lilly Nelson stands out because her character stands out. This character, Judy Sears, is not as good an actor as the others. Presumably, getting cast was easier for Sears because she’s white; Nelson deserves kudos for so expertly portraying the character’s well-intentioned ineptness.
Miles Snow doubles as the Irish doorman Henry and the actor Bill O’Wray, delivering two distinct characters. Foye Thornton’s John Nevis is endearing, as is Camryn Sherer’s Millie Davis. And Jonathan Drezner is quite obviously familiar with the role of “director’s go-for.”
First and foremost: kudos to costume designer Pamela Bond. Each character’s 1950s wardrobe helps define the character. Kendall Clark’s lighting design includes mood-appropriate isolated pools of light when needed as well as subtle variations in the general lighting to augment the prevailing emotions generated onstage.
This stage easily portrays an actual rehearsal stage, but at times its depth works against it. That is, I would have been tempted to block the show further forward, because there are times that upstage action is a little too difficult to focus on.
A Few of the Poignant lines:
“That ain’t [Uncle] Tom-in’; that’s common sense.” “Yeah! That ‘brotherhood of man’ stuff.” “I ain’t gonna die — I couldn’t afford it.” “I’m full. And my cup runneth over.” “You can’t spit in somebody’s eye and tell ’em you washin’ it.”
Especially poignant: The borrowed quote from Gone with the Wind (and where it appears): “Tomorrow is another day!”
From the Department of Picky-Picky:
While Miles Stone’s hair is colored ideally for the character of Bill O’Wray and for the character of Henry while Henry is wearing his hat, I would like to suggest finding a way around the bit that involves Henry removing his hat because, while Henry definitely appears to be 78 years-old, the hair that has been hidden under the hat does not.
AND: I know that they are becoming increasingly hard to find, but newspapers were printed on wider paper 50 years ago.
The Bottom Line:
Trouble in Mind, while firmly rooted in the 1950s theater scene, is just as relevant today. Every joke is just as funny, and every truth is just as true. It plays through Sunday, June 30; and I do recommend it.
P.S. Quotes from Agape Theatre Project’s Website:
The Agape Theatre Project is a faith and community-based organization created for the purpose of producing and promoting original plays from predominantly African-American playwrights in an effort to reach across social, spiritual, economic and racial boundary lines.
All of our shows are clean and family friendly. Bring the whole family out for a night of fun.
The Agape Theatre Project presents TROUBLE IN MIND at 8 p.m. June 27 and 28, 3 and 8 p.m. June 29, and 3 p.m. June 30 in the University Theatre in North Carolina Central University’s Farrison-Newton Communications Building, 501 E Lawson St., Durham, North Carolina 27707.
TICKETS: $20 in advance and $25 at the door.
BOX OFFICE: 919-957-9692 or https://www.eventbrite.com/e/trouble-in-mind-stage-play-tickets-62231878223.
SHOW: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/trouble-in-mind-stage-play-tickets-62231878223 and https://www.facebook.com/events/317634015838841/.
PRESENTER: https://www.agapetheatreproject.com/ and https://www.facebook.com/ATPDurham/.
Trouble in Mind (1955 Off-Broadway comedy-drama): https://www.encyclopedia.com/arts/educational-magazines/trouble-mind (Encyclopedia.com).
Study Guide: https://www.milwaukeerep.com/RepGlobal/archive/troubleinmind.pdf (Milwaukee Repertory Theatre).
Alice Childress (Charleston, SC-born playwright, 1916-94): https://www.britannica.com/biography/Alice-Childress (Encyclopædia Britannica), http://www.iobdb.com/CreditableEntity/21465 (Internet Off-Broadway Database), https://www.ibdb.com/broadway-cast-staff/alice-childress-81710 (Internet Broadway Database), https://www.imdb.com/name/nm0157533/ (Internet Movie Database), and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alice_Childress (Wikipedia).
Kenneth E. Hinton (Durham, NC director, artistic director of the Agape Theatre Project, adjunct instructor at North Carolina Central University, and part-time faculty member at Shaw University): https://www.agapetheatreproject.com/kenne (Agape Theatre Project bio), http://www.nccu.edu/directory/details.cfm?id=khinton (NCCU bio), https://www.shawu.edu/Faculty_Staff/Faculty_Websites_Hinton_Kenneth.aspx?id=1504 (Shaw bio), https://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1676031804 (Facebook page), and https://twitter.com/kehinton (Twitter page).
Kurt Benrud is a graduate of Cary High School and N.C. State University, and he has taught English at both. He first became involved in local theater in 1980. He has served on the board of directors for both the Cary Players and the Cary Playwrights’ Forum. He is also a volunteer reader with Triangle Radio Reading Service. Click here to read his reviews for Triangle Review and Triangle Arts and Entertainment.