Reviewed by Michael T. Mooney on Friday, April 11, 2014 at 8pm
In the theater, the ghost light is a single bare bulb used to illuminate a darkened stage. Some say it frightens off theater ghosts, others claim it gives them something to perform by. In either case, audiences entering Two River's Rechnitz Theater for TROUBLE IN MIND know that this will be a backstage story by the ghost light burning downstage right. In this case, that light embodies the radiant talent of playwright, Alice Childress, whose brilliant spirit illuminates every moment of this fascinating play.
Childress was an African American performer turned playwright during the 1950's. TROUBLE IN MIND was her first full-length play. It appeared off-Broadway in 1955 and was poised for greater success when unfortunately plans fell apart. She quickly moved on to other projects, eventually including her 1973 book “A Hero Ain't Nothin' But a Sandwich” as well as its subsequent screenplay.
For TROUBLE IN MIND Childress became the first African American woman to receive an Obie Award. She also has the honor of being the first female playwright of color to have a play professionally produced in New York City. Not on Broadway, sadly; that distinction would fall to Lorraine Hansberry for 1959's “A Raisin in the Sun.”
TROUBLE IN MIND is actually a play-within-a-play. It concerns an integrated cast rehearsing a Southern melodrama titled “Chaos in Belleville.” Childress skillfully balances the humor of recognizable stereotypes with the very real quandary of actors forced to portray them for their living. The play-within-the-play depicts a world where stooped field workers are gratuitously named after gemstones or flowers and exclamations like “Lord have mercy” are offered up as substitutes for meaningful dialogue. When condescending white director Al Manners (sharply played by natty Steven Skybell) tries to coach experienced character woman Wiletta Maye (a superb Brenda Pressley) into a more grounded performance, it awakens something in her that threatens the harmony of the company – and possibly the production itself.
TROUBLE IN MIND was considered lost for many years and was unearthed and published in the 1970's. It has lately been enjoying a spate of regional productions and deservedly so. Two River's mounting is expertly staged by Jade King Carroll and acted by a terrific ensemble. It would be very easy for these characters to lapse into stereotype, especially Manners, who has both power and position. But perhaps because Childress was of mixed race herself all the characters retain their dignity and vulnerability no matter what their color. She also consistently maintains the precarious balance between drama and comedy. This is a thoughtful and heartfelt depiction of a time and place Childress knew quite well.
Between this year's Oscar-winning film “12 Years a Slave” and the current Broadway revival of “A Raisin in the Sun” (recently attended by our nation's first black President), we are reminded that the issues of race relations are still as topical and as relevant as they were nearly 60 years ago. That alone is reason enough to trouble the mind.
TROUBLE IN MIND continues at Two River Theater in Red Bank through April 27th.
Two River’s Rechnitz Theater, 21 Bridge Avenue, Red Bank, New Jersey.
Tickets are available from 732.345.1400 or tworivertheater.org.
Photos by T. Charles Erickson