Trouble In Mind at the Guthrie Theater

Margo Moorer and Cleavant Derricks in Trouble In Mind. Photo by Keri Pickett.

Margo Moorer and Cleavant Derricks in Trouble In Mind. Photo by Keri Pickett.

“Justify!” demands the fictional director in Alice Childress’ Trouble in Mind a play-within-a–play drama now at the Guthrie, through June 5.

“Justify,” spits back Wiletta in the second act as she struggles with the need to keep her acting job and reconcile the white producer/director’s interpretation of the black experience.

While the examination of stereotyping in the arts is hardly new, Childress’s Trouble in Mind takes us behind the scenes literally to watch a cast and crew gather to rehearse a play called Chaos in Belleville about poor blacks on a southern plantation. The tension lies in the actions and reactions of the people asked to enact the false roles of submissive mammies, and withdrawn but earnest pappies. Early on, this tension within the play-within-the-play shows itself as Wiletta cautions John, young black actor, to laugh at all the white director’s dumb jokes and to always act happy. “Whites don’t like us to say we aren’t happy.”

The first act’s satire is particularly strong. The entire cast (including Margo Moorer as Wiletta, John Catron as the stage director, and Marcel Spears as John) delivers lines with a one/two precision: an off-hand nonchalance here followed by a fast punch there.

The play does have some ragged spots, for example an outburst by the character Judy (Chloe Armao) who plays the plantation owner’s daughter in the rehearsal show, seems to come out of nowhere.

Certainly the high point of the evening is reached when Sheldon (Cleavant Derricks) relates a disturbing event from his childhood. His speech stills the air in the huge Maguire theatre and the audience barely breathes as he delivers it. This is followed by two more long monologues given by other actors. Director Valerie Curtis-Newton chooses to stage all three speeches in exactly the same way, on the same patch of stage surrounded by a semicircle of cast members. By the time the audience receives Wiletta’s speech, which by rights would be the apex of the play, a monotony has set in and the three speeches get less interesting rather than more so. Part of this is playwright Childress’s doing, and part the fault of the directors’ staging.

Overall this is a worthy production. Sixty years after Trouble won the Obie for the best off-Broadway production of 1955 there is still plenty of topical drama left in this play. References abound which still hit home today: from Hitler’s belief in the gullibility of the electorate and the U. S. Congress mired in the toxic House Un-American Activities committee meetings, to the executions of Blacks by a white people who feel their actions necessary to preserve order, all have their parallels in our own time. It is to the Guthrie’s credit that this play has been revived and the excellent dramaturge notes by Jo Holcomb give us a start in learning more about Childress and her career. The Guthrie has played it so safe for so long that it is surprising they even considered doing this play, which is all to its credit, no justification needed.

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