Trouble in Mind

By - Jan 28th, 2009 02:52 pm
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By Matthew Konkel

Are all people the same no matter the color of our skin? Yes, but no, is the conclusion of Alice Childress in Trouble in Mind.

The year is 1957 in the backstage area of a Broadway theater. It’s the first rehearsal of a new play and the characters of Trouble in Mind are the actors, director and stage manager of this new show. Two years prior Rosa Parks made her famous refusal to vacate her bus seat to a white person. This is relevant because the characters of Trouble in Mind are comprised of mostly African-Americans and before the play is over a crisis of recalcitrance will rear its head.

The first act is comprised of each of the actors and crew arriving one by one for their introduction and familiarization to the play within the play. All the black actors are prepared for their usual stereotypical colored character roles. Wiletta Mayer, our main protagonist, has played numerous characters named after jewels. And she takes time to counsel John Nevins, a young black actor in his first professional production, on the obsequious ways of blacks in the theatre. All the experienced black characters (Wiletta, Millie, and Sheldon) have conformed to their “yes men” roles as black performers because that’s what roles are offered to black performers and the rent needs to be paid. Each one’s temperament is challenged by the events forthcoming. But as the play unfolds, we see it is Wiletta’s character journey that is the spine of the story.

All the Repertory actors pull off their roles magnificently. There’s not a weak performance in the bunch. From the quiet Eddie to the loquacious Wiletta, each actor brings physicality, voice, and imagination to their characters. There are so many subtle character nuances that shine like their own stage lights. Stephanie Berry as Wiletta and Lee Ernst as Al Manners are the stand outs. As Sheldon, Ernest Perry Jr. gives an excellent performance. There’s not a moment his broke, submissive actor, is unbelievable, not one ounce of pretense that is noticeable. You will find it hard to breath during his monologue in which he relates being the witness of a lynching when his character is just nine years old.

The tightest screw of tension in act one comes when Al Manners, the white director who’s prone to unorthodox methods, asks Wiletta to pick up a crumbled piece of paper he’s thrown to the floor. All the characters are stone-faced and silent, and the pressure is palpable for a full sixty seconds. It’s a testament to the actors. Not many companies have such highly developed acting skills that they can make such a long silence work on stage.

The crisis of the story comes as a monologue in act two when Wiletta, playing Ruby (another jewel named character) can no longer contain her passivity about the play and her role in it. Her desire to be a respected actress clashes with what Al refers to as “character parts.” Al Manners in turn has his own breaking point of realization and reveal about truth and how he truly feels about people: the color of our skin and what the public is willing to accept makes a big difference.

Timothy Douglas has directed a near masterpiece of dramatic art. From overlapping dialogue to finely tuned dramatic turns to dead-on comedic timing, the production works on every level.

The set and lighting are both functional in form and tonally effective. Junghyun Georgia Lee’s set design makes you believe you’re backstage of a theater while supporting the theme of confusion and duality. The lighting is appropriately invisible among dramatic story shifts and the music is effective in putting you back in another time.

The story may be set in 1957 but the themes of Trouble in Mind are as relevant today as they were over sixty years ago.

Trouble in Mind runs through February 15 in the Quadracci Powerhouse Theater. 414-224-9490 or milwaukeerep.com.

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