Trouble in Mind
A new play called Chaos in Bellville is in rehearsal for a 1957 opening at a Broadway theater. (During a talkback after a recent performance, a theatergoer wondered about Childress writing the play in 1955 and setting it two years later. None of the gracious actors participating in the discussion could fully explain.) Many of the principal performers within Chaos are African-American. The director, Al Manners (Kevin O'Rourke), is white and he pushes hard for realistic performance. Leading performer Wiletta Mayer (E. Faye Butler) finds flaws within the script. At first somewhat reticent to express herself since she's simply grateful to have landed the role, Wiletta develops into a woman of fortitude and courage and she audaciously takes on Manners. She tries not to upstage but rather to clarify. Wiletta ultimately determines that Manners wants her to be seen negatively – "The writer wants the damn white man to be the hero and me, the mother, to be the villain!" She will not stand for this.
Her good friend Millie Davis (Starla Benford), perceptive and sardonic early on, eventually attempts to calm the waters after tensions reach the boiling point. Millie, in previous roles on stage played maids and mammies with names like Petunia and Tulip. Sheldon Forrester (Thomas Jefferson Byrd) actually witnessed a lynching when he was a young boy. His role in Chaos is minor, but Childress's ability to create the character as one who is first internally and then externally spirited and passionate is profound.
O'Rourke depicts Manners as one who is self-involved and focused upon the end result rather than the journey within these plays. He is condescending and patronizing during the first act. Finally, however, it's clear that he wants to get the play up and rolling and will follow steps to achieve his goal. Wiletta wants to know whether he would ever send his own son to jail and awaits an answer.
Trouble in Mind was a huge hit when it premiered Off-Broadway. Slated to transfer uptown, the play never made it into midtown Manhattan because Childress refused to compromise her voice and purpose by rewriting the ending so that Broadway producers might be satisfied. The playwright evidently penned the finale in several ways without yielding her values. The play failed to move on. Moreover, during the 1950s, she was scrutinized because of her progressive politics. She was strong, outspoken, and unafraid.
Life and art intertwine within Trouble in Mind. That was evident as most cast members arrived downstage for conversation after a recent performance for a talkback. Sometimes these discussions amongst theater personnel and theatergoers (after shows) are nondescript. Not so at Yale. E. Faye Butler noted that a day earlier she had been asked to come to London to participate in a staging of Gone With the Wind. Yet Butler was asked to play a maid who had virtually no dialogue. Instead, she would be given a role which bids a performer moan and groan. That's it. She and her colleagues commiserated that a half century later Trouble in Mind remains, thematically, a play of the moment.
Yale Rep's affecting production benefits from enduring performance and high quality design. Michael Locher's scenic design takes the viewer to a Broadway theater, with brick walls, hanging lights, spiral staircase, ropes and ladders. Irene Lewis directs convincing actors who are ardent and forceful. This is a searing drama, a very special evening of theater.
Trouble in Mind continues its run at the Yale Repertory Theatre in New Haven through November 17th. Talkback sessions will be held after the November 8th evening and November 10th matinee performances. For ticket and schedule information, call (203) 432-1234.
- Fred Sokol