Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

Trouble in Mind
Guthrie Theater
Review by Arthur Dorman | Season Schedule

Also see Arty's reviews of The Changelings, A Night in Olympus, and The Book of Mormon


Kris L. Nelson, Margo Moorer, Peter Thomson, Marcel Spears, John Catron and Chloe Armao
Photo by Keri Pickett
By selecting Trouble in Mind, Alice Childress's play that first appeared in 1955, for his first season since taking the reins as Guthrie Theater Artistic Director, Joseph Haj demonstrates a gift for unearthing theatrical treasure and polishing it to a brilliant shine that casts light upon today's society as clearly as it did six decades ago. The play premiered off-Broadway and earned an Obie award as best original play. Firm plans for a move to Broadway followed, a move that never occurred as Childress was unwilling to compromise her work by writing a "happier ending" thought to be more suitable for Broadway audiences in the 1950s. This incident reveals just how prescient Childress was in Trouble in Mind.

Since then, Trouble in Mind has been only sporadically produced. A 2013 production at Seattle's Intiman Theatre was directed by Valerie Curtis-Newton, who repeats that role at the Guthrie with razor sharp focus that honors the play both as engrossing human drama and as a snapshot of a society wracked by a racial divide. Trouble in Mind is set on the bare stage of a lovely old Broadway playhouse where a new play is starting rehearsals. The play within the play, called Chaos in Belleville, is set in the deep south and deals with the horror of lynching still common at that time. The play was written by a white playwright and is being directed by a white director named Al Manners, a movie director drawn to make his first foray on Broadway by the social significance of this project.

Chaos in Belleville is the tale of a young black man who borrows trouble by insisting on exercising his right to vote, a decade before Selma and passage of the Voting Rights Act. Incensed local whites are after the young man, eager to make an example of him at the end of a noose. His parents tried in vain to dissuade their son from perusing his rights, knowing it would not be tolerated. In this context, the boys' mother, Ruby, advises a course of action that amounts to ceding power to the whites who control every aspect of their lives.

Wiletta Mayer is the actress playing Ruby. Wiletta has some years behind her and is glad to again have work in the theater. She has learned the ropes of working around white people—how to fit in, ingratiate herself, avoid appearing uppity or insolent—and passes this wisdom on to John Nevins, an idealistic, college educated actor cast as Ruby's son, though John scarcely believes he need behave in any way other than himself. The remainder of the Chaos at Belleville cast is composed of Millie Davis, a black actress who carries an air of sophistication, though she has had to resign herself to playing maids and mammies; Sheldon Forrester, an old-time creature of the stage who has endured as a black performer by bowing to those on the top; Bill O'Wray, a veteran actor who plays the "great white father" role, the patriarch of the landed family for whom the black characters all work; Judy Sears, in her first acting job, as the sweet young daughter of O'Wray's character.

In the course of rehearsal, Wiletta becomes deeply troubled by the words and actions of her character, Ruby. She struggles within herself, with her castmates, and especially with director Al Manners over how to address this aspect of the play. The conflict between Ruby and Al reveals a rift in the way in which self-proclaimed white liberals with good intentions and African Americans see the problem of race, and what solutions they are prepared to endorse. But all of the assembled characters weigh in on how their experiences, their beliefs, and their material needs converge to form their position on these divisive issues.

The stellar cast is a mix of long-standing Twin Cities actors and newcomers who bring new gifts to the McGuire stage. Margo Moorer makes her Minnesota debut in the pivotal role of Wiletta, playing this part with utter conviction. She beautifully captures Wiletta's moments of elation at being back in a theater, revealing her capacity for joy, but then finds Wiletta's core strength as someone who has endured enough to know just how much more she can bend. John Catron, with a long list of credits at the Guthrie and other Twin Cities theaters, plays director Al Manners with unbridled arrogance, a bully disguised as an artist, unable to see himself as others do. The inestimable Austene Van makes the smaller role of Millie Davis a glistening gem, who can put her innate glamour on hold when a paycheck is in question. Cleavant Derricks, a 1982 Tony winner as James Thunder Early in the original cast of Dreamgirls, makes his Twin Cities debut as Sheldon. Derricks conveys the role-playing subservience that has enabled Sheldon to survive in a white man's world, but casts out enough wit and wisdom to assure us he may act the part, but is no fool.

Chloe Armao, seen at the Guthrie in The Crucible last year, endows the part of Judy Sears with intelligence, entering with gushing naiveté and steadily learning the harsh realities of how things really work backstage. Marcel Spears makes a strong impression as John Nevins, the young, idealistic actor who believes that his training and his principles will enable him to do work that makes a difference in the world. In many ways he parallels the character he has been chosen to play in Chaos in Belleville. The remainder of the cast are Twin Cities mainstays: Kris L. Nelson as stage manager Eddie Fenton, who endures constant humiliation at the hands of Al Manners; Peter Thomson as Bill O'Wray; and Nathaniel Fuller, especially winning as Henry, an old-timer kept on as a go-for who is past having axes to grind and treats each person with a dignity that comes naturally to him.

Costume designer Melanie Taylor Burgess and set designer Jennifer Zeyl again work with director Curtis-Newton, having designed the 2013 Intiman production of Trouble in Mind, and the team clearly has winning chemistry. The costumes, especially for Ms. Moorer and Ms. Van, exude Eisenhower-era confidence and stylishness in contrast to the costumes their characters wear on stages as household domestics or field hands. The back-stage setting has enough features within its nondescript bareness to suggest the artistry that promises to take shape in this space.

The resonance that Trouble in Mind has in our current time, with Black Lives Matter, waves of violence in urban neighborhoods, a persistent academic achievement gap, and horrific incarceration rates in communities of color, is self-evident. It would be lovely to be able to call Trouble in Mind a period piece, a play that depicts the issues of a time gone by. Sadly, the issues articulated with so much heart, humor, and insight by Alice Childress in 1955 are still with us, changed of course, but far from erased. This makes Trouble in Mind> a work that cries to be seen, not only as a skillful piece of playwriting, mounted in a production of the highest quality, but as a measure by which we might gauge how far sixty years of striving to bridge our social divides have brought us, and consider where to go from here.

Trouble in Mind continues through June 5, 2016, at the Guthrie's McGuire Proscenium Stage, 618 South 2nd Street, Minneapolis, MN, 55115. Tickets: $34.00 - $64.00. Student and 30 & below discounts available. For tickets call 612-377-2224 or go to GuthrieTheater.org. Rush seats may be available 30 minutes before performance, from $15.00 - $30.00, cash or check only.

Writer: Alice Childress; Director: Valerie Curtis-Newton; Scenic Design: Jennifer Zeyl; Costume Design: Melanie Taylor Burgess; Lighting Design: Mary Louise Geiger; Sound Design: Justin Ellington; Voice and Text Coach: Michael Cobb; Dramaturg: Jo Holcomb; Stage Manager: Justin Hossle; Casting Consultant: McCorkle Casting, LTD; Assistant Stage Manager: Jason Clusman; Assistant Director: Jamil Jude; Design Assistants: Alice Fredrickson (costumes), Tom Mays (lighting) and Reid Rejsa (sound).

Cast: Chloe Armao (Judy Sears), John Catron (Al Manners), Cleavant Derricks (Sheldon Forrester), Nathaniel Fuller (Henry), Margo Moorer (Wiletta Mayer), Kris L. Nelson (Eddie Fenton), Marcel Spears (John Nevins), Peter Thomson (Bill O'Wray), Austene Van (Millie Davis).


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