Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Washington, D.C.

Trouble in Mind

Also see Susan's review of Fahrenheit 451

E. Faye Butler
So many things change as years and eras pass, but surprisingly, some things don't seem so different after all. Playwright Alice Childress wrote Trouble in Mind in 1955, during an era of Jim Crow laws and civil rights demonstrations, yet Arena Stage's production of the play hits on some issues that are as touchy today as they were half a century ago.

The play takes place at a rehearsal of a well-intentioned—but obviously not very good—play about race relations in the American South, complete with an autocratic white landowner (Daren Kelly), his liberal-minded daughter (Gretchen Hall), and noble black sharecroppers. It's Broadway in the 1950s, and the hard-edged director, Al Manners (Marty Lodge), is trying to get through to his integrated cast, but he has to deal with what people today call "unexamined privilege."

The action of Trouble in Mind comes from the drama behind the drama: the assumptions, the hidden antagonism, the ways in which people go along to get along.

Indomitable Wiletta Mayer (E. Faye Butler) and outspoken Millie Davis (Starla Benford) try to show young, ambitious John Nevins (Brandon J. Dirden) that black actors have to show deference around white authority figures: for instance, be ready to laugh if there's any chance that the white man has said anything that might possibly be intended as a joke. Long-established character actor Sheldon Forrester (Thomas Jefferson Byrd) complains about the need to suck up, but he understands the truth of the situation.

For example, Al routinely kisses Wiletta on the forehead after giving her notes, but she wipes off her forehead as soon as he's otherwise occupied. The white men offer fatuous comments about believing in "just one race—the human race," but that doesn't stop one of them from talking about his discomfort eating with "them." And Wiletta and Millie discuss the roles available to black women: characters named after flowers and jewels (the play-within-a-play has a Petunia and a Ruby), and kindly Mammies who favor their white charges over their own children.

Director Irene Lewis has molded a strong ensemble out of her cast. While Butler is the heart and soul of the drama, the cast offers endearing and quirky performances even in the smaller roles, such as Laurence O'Dwyer as the garrulous stage doorman and Garrett Neergaard as the director's long-suffering assistant.

Arena Stage
Trouble in Mind
September 9th - October 23rd
By Alice Childress
Wiletta Mayer: E. Faye Butler
Henry: Laurence O'Dwyer
John Nevins: Brandon J. Dirden
Millie Davis: Starla Benford
Sheldon Forrester: Thomas Jefferson Byrd
Judy Sears: Gretchen Hall
Al Manners: Marty Lodge
Eddie Fenton: Garrett Neergaard
Bill O'Wray: Daren Kelly
Stagehand: T. Anthony Quinn
Directed by Irene Lewis
Kreeger Theater, Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater, Sixth and Maine avenues SW
Washington, DC
Ticket Information: 202-488-3300 or

Photo: Richard Anderson