Arts & Events

Theater Review: Trouble in Mind, at the Aurora

By Ken Bullock
Tuesday September 07, 2010 - 07:42:00 AM

"Aha! Motivation—that's the thing!" When an interracial cast of actors assembles to rehearse a message melodrama about a lynching, the play helmed by a brusque director who implores—or orders—them to "please forget your old methods of work and follow me," seeking "the firm texture of truth ... I want truth. what is truth? Truth is whatever you can bring yourself to believe." 

But there's much that can't be forgotten, at least not for long. And whatever the different company members can motivate themselves to believe is the truth, its name is legion, in Alice Childress' remarkable 1955 satiric drama, Trouble in Mind, at the Aurora through September 26. 

Childress received the first Obie ever awarded to a woman for the play. But it missed a Broadway production when Childress, as if following her lead character's ethical instincts, refused to rewrite Trouble, as a more "heartwarming" So Early Monday Morning, after two years on the job. So the record goes to Lorraine Hansberry as the first female African American playwright with a play on the Great White Way with A Raisin in the Sun two years after Trouble's Broadway debut was cancelled. 

Childress' play is a monument of postwar American dramaturgy, consummately put together, with a development hilarious in its satire, a climax still searing in its trenchantly moral directness, and a marvelously theatrical denouement that accents a liberated humanism. It belongs with its successors of the next decade or so—like Raisin, the plays of Ed Bullins and LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka's The Dutchman—as an African American work of art that brought both the culture of Black Americans and the social struggle they faced onto the national stage, all still capable of refreshing the events of those days—and the stakes the participants in those events faced—for audiences a half century later. 

Director Robin Stanton's cast of nine is a very capable ensemble, with Margot Hall shining in the lead role as Willeta Mayer, a seasoned woman of the stage, used to making the best of demeaning roles in a White theater world. "It is Tom-ish, but they do it more than we do. They call it a Yes Man." Hall subtly glides through the changes of a character that even comments on those changes in progress, as she progressively disregards the seemingly cynical advice she gave at the beginning to a young, apparently idealistic African American drama student: "White folks can't stand unhappy Negroes." The company's backstage shows of solidarity are undercut by self-interest, disinterest and self-regard. 

The dialogue registers the effects of the mid-50s national media scene, Red-baiting and rocks thrown at young Black students seeking admission to school. A middle-aged African American stage vet—before a monologue revealing he saw a lynching as a child—chimes in with: "The Man don't have to even be here. He could be out in Hollywood, in the middle of a big investigation!" 

Aurora deserves credit for bringing back—yet how many have seen or read it?—this tough, absorbing, humane masterpiece, which brings a recent, but half-eulogized, half-neglected time to life, putting it—and the present—into sharp perspective.