Arts & Events

Theatre Review: TROUBLE IN MIND at Aurora—tight writing and bravura performances remind us of the troubles of not so long ago

by John A. McMullen II
Tuesday September 07, 2010 - 10:32:00 AM
Director Al Manners (l, Tim Kniffin*) and Eddie Fenton (r, Patrick Russell*) watch the cast 
            (c. l-r, Melissa Quine, Michael Ray Wisely*, Margo Hall*, Elizabeth Carter*, Jon Gentry*, 
            Rhonnie Washington*) rehearse in Trouble in Mind (*-member AEA)
David Allen
Director Al Manners (l, Tim Kniffin*) and Eddie Fenton (r, Patrick Russell*) watch the cast (c. l-r, Melissa Quine, Michael Ray Wisely*, Margo Hall*, Elizabeth Carter*, Jon Gentry*, Rhonnie Washington*) rehearse in Trouble in Mind (*-member AEA)

If you want to see how things really go in the rehearsal of a play, go see Trouble in Mind at the Aurora Theatre playing through September 26. It’s about rehearsals for a Broadway play in 1955. It is unnervingly realistic in its portrayal of the clash of egos and artistic differences, older actors offering unsolicited advice to new actors, the conundrum of submitting to the arbitrary vision of an overbearing director, and actors who are always “on” and whose main frame of reference is their own needy situation.  

Into this boiling pot, splash in the oil of an interracial cast in a play about a young black man trying to vote in Mississippi. In their roles the players are supposed to kowtow to the Man and shuck and jive like Uncle Tom and Aunt Jemima. Like most actors, they need the job, and as distasteful as you would imagine it to be, they accept their roles. For a while. 


The structure of TROUBLE IN MIND is tightly wrapped, a manic rollercoaster of emotions suppressed and on the edge of free-fall. The characters are doing all they can to keep their masks in place though they are slipping, and we can see the rage bubbling beneath. Eight different agendas and perspectives struggle. Points of view change, realizations happen, truth comes out. Battles rage and subside, and just when the wounds seem healed, the stitches break and there is blood on the floor again. 

Alice Childress, a high school drop-out (like August Wilson), and an actress with the American Negro Theatre (where Poitier and Belafonte got their start) won an Obie for this play. It presaged the Civil Rights storm, premiering off Broadway not quite a month before Rosa Parks refused to move to the back of the bus. The year before, Brown v. Board of Education moved the US close to a second secession by the 17 Southern states when the Supreme Court told them they had to integrate their schools. (To remind us of what things were like: “The White Citizens' Council in Mississippi, led by a circuit court judge, published a handbook calling for the nullification of the NAACP, the creation of a forty-ninth state for Negroes, and the abolition of public schools.” For a little pictorial review of the times, go to the Library of Congress site

The “architect” of the play is the director Al Manners, played with uncomfortable accuracy by Tim Kniffin. Every erstwhile director will cringe at his transparent flattery, his touching the actors in a paternal fashion to display dominance, and his squelching any question or comment from an actor with, “Just do it.” He bends, kneels, and cranes to give the actors an audience so that they will play to please him.  

The actual director Robin Stanton shows a sure grip on the turnabout and changing tempos of the writing. She starts them slow, as if the actors were acting in the old style even when addressing one another with overly articulated words and pauses—actually a bit tedious for while. Then the Director shows up, and when he tries to invoke Strasberg’s cinematic acting methods to take them out of their comfort zone, things heat up and realism reigns. When you ask for “truth,” sometimes you get the kind you don’t want. 

The director whines about his divorce and alimony and his forgoing a profitable Hollywood gig to do a Broadway play. He fancies himself a liberal and has invested in this hot-button play, yet has to play to the common taste to recoup his investment. His troubles all pale when compared to the cast’s troubles. 

The economic reality of Rhonnie Washington’s older black actor character consists of keeping his job and finding an apartment rather than questioning the conclusions of the play that’s putting bread on his table. He’s too old to lift heavy stuff, so he will do what the Man wants the way he wants it.  

Glamorous, large-framed, face-to-die-for Elizabeth Carter inhabits a character full of material wants and needs, who, with fur coats and expensive watches, gives us a peek at how consumerism dulls the social conscience.  

Our white, Yalie ingénue played by Melissa Quine goes from timid, foot-in-mouth mouse to the actress full of “darlings!” and flourishes. Her friendliness with the young black actor character, played by talented Jon Joseph Gentry, makes the cast uncomfortable. (Some will remember that 35 of the 48 states prohibited interracial marriage before the anti-miscegenation laws were overturned over a decade later by the ironically named Supreme Court case Loving v. Virginia. The summer the play was being written Emmett Till , a 14-year-old boy from Chicago spending the summer with relatives in Mississippi was lynched for allegedly having wolf-whistled at a white woman.) 

The half deaf, Irish theatre care-taker full of platitudes and kind words is played by Earll Kingston with heart-wrenching obsequiousness. His character gives us a glimmer that the white proletarian struggle for economic and class equality and the black struggle for racial justice are natural allies. (Remember when people thought that way before the Right pitted them against one another economically?) 

Michael Ray Wisely as the established white character film actor who tries to bond by telling “Rastus, chicken-stealin’” jokes makes us cover our eyes and shake our heads; it’s not so much his cluelessness, but that all sense and judgment exits stage left in the emotional arena of racism.  

Patrick Russell as the SM and whipping-boy of the director gives a good turn as a “yes man.” Obeisance to authority among all classes seems to be a sub-theme suffused throughout this play. 

One of the many moving moments is Rhonnie Washington’s spotlighted monologue about witnessing the aftermath of a lynching as child. (Hard to believe that between 1882 and 1968 there were 3,446 lynchings of blacks—and 1,297 lynchings of whites; a photo of an Indiana lynching even made the cover of Life magazine in 1930.) 

Our “Antigone” is the more mature singer-actress played by Margo Hall whose arc and anagnorisis gain our sympathy step-by-step. She brings a succinct and changeable bravura performance to the role. She is the first one on the stage as a self-protecting know-it-all, and the last one left standing and we weep with her. 

Callie Floor’s costumes transport us to the 1950’s “Mad Men” fitted and glamorous fashions. The legendary sartorial style of African-Americans (before pants-on-the-ground and bling) are justifiably enhanced by the fact these are working actors who have to dress to get the job. A full- length fur coat, wonderful millinery, tailored jackets with tactile fabrics, and perfectly altered pants are all a joyful treat to the eye in today’s cotton shirt and pants world. 

Eric Sinkonnen wows us with a simple backstage set of counterweights and pulley riggings, brick wall, banks of old steam heat radiators fenced off with chicken wire, a large coat rack to exploit the donning and doffing of Callie Floor’s couture choices, a very high/almost out of sight pink and gold valence that intimates the grandeur of an old Broadway theatre. 

The original production was in three acts with a happy ending; this is in two acts with an ambiguous ending that is as ominous in its moment-before-the-storm as August 1914 or 1939 were. The play’s title reflects Richard M. Jones’ 8-bar blues standard that everyone in the original cast would have known the words to: “Trouble in mind, I’m blue/ But I won’t be blue always / I know the sun's gonna shine in my back door someday…. Sometimes I feel like dyin’/ Tell you what I’m gonna do/ I’m gonna lay my head/on some lonely railroad line.” 

It’s good to remember the bad old days, to see how far we’ve come and to congratulate ourselves on making changes to our “ American Dilemma.” Hopefully, on the way out of the theatre, someone will mention that the incarceration rate for black males is six times that for whites, and unemployment rates for African-Americans are double the national average, the highest in 25 years.  

TROUBLE IN MIND, 2081 Addison Street, Berkeley through September 26.  

Tickets/info or (510) 843-4822  

WITH: Elizabeth Carter, Jon Joseph Gentry, Margo Hall, Earll Kingston Tim Kniffin, Melissa Quine, Patrick Russell, Rhonnie Washington, Michael Ray Wisely 

Written by Alice Childress, directed by Robin Stanton, set by Eric Sinkkonen, lighting by Kurt Landisman, properties by Mia Baxter, composer/sound design by Chris Houston, casting by Jessica Heidt, and stage management by Dustin Joshua Brown. 

John McMullen is a member of San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle and American Theatre Critics Association, and takes comments at Editing/proofreading by E. J. Dunne