The stage assumes an astutely sociological function in Alice Childress’ rarely produced “Trouble in Mind,” and this incisive Center Stage production makes you wonder why the 1955 drama isn’t seen more often. The play initially seems to aspire to be no more than a period piece about a mostly African-American cast rehearsing a Broadway production, and it would be interesting if it did no more than evoke the immediate postwar era. One is gradually struck, however, by how bracingly prophetic the late playwright’s script turns out to be.
The “rehearsal play” format has a self-reflexive quality that will please postmodernists who like watching theater about theater. More importantly, as the characters start questioning the stereotypical roles they have been playing all their professional lives, “Trouble in Mind” almost seems like a first draft for George C. Wolfe’s “The Colored Museum.”
Although the African-American Childress, best known for young-adult novel “A Hero Ain’t Nothin’ but a Sandwich,” tends to repeat thematic points in this too-long play, the points themselves remain painfully relevant and are expressed with a lively blend of funny and sad dialogue. The play was written at a time when Jim Crow laws were being judicially exorcised, but condescending social attitudes remained in every stage of American life, even among well-intentioned white liberals.
The play-within-the-play, for instance, is an ardently humanistic anti-lynching drama, “Chaos in Belleville,” bursting at the melodramatic seams with hackneyed character types and risible po’ folks dialect. Its clueless white director, Al Manners (Craig Wroe), thinks he’s making a socially progressive statement as he looks forward to making his Broadway directorial debut. The actors trade lines and otherwise shoot the breeze on a massive stage whose dusky aura is epitomized by the ropes and sandbags of an old-fashioned “hemp house.”
Even though the black cast members collectively roll their eyes at the stammering maids and mammies they’re expected to play, they generally go along with it because, well, work is work. Childress does a fine job of elucidating the varying degrees to which they acquiesce to theatrical reinforcement of the social oppression they know so well.
The middle-aged star of “Chaos in Belleville,” Wiletta Mayer (E. Faye Butler), has played racially demoralizing stage and screen supporting roles her entire career and at first welcomes an opportunity for top billing on Broadway.
Other black performers, including Millie Davis (Starla Benford) and Sheldon Forrester (Thomas Jefferson Byrd), are happy for any work they can get. And the white actors, such as novice Judy Sears (Maria Dizzia), are so caught up in learning the lines they don’t really think about the words’ social implications.
Once questioning voices are raised, though, the lynch mob in “Chaos” starts to seem mild by comparison. Butler is movingly effective in taking Wiletta from complacency to outrage, and nearly everybody gets a dramatically satisfying chance to simmer and then explode.
More problematic in this Irene Lewis-directed production is that the Center Stage cast often plays to the balcony when a little nuance wouldn’t hurt. Admittedly, “Trouble in Mind” calls on its black characters to both embody and satirize stereotypical acting styles, but the actors playing those actors should find ways to modulate their performances.
There’s fortunately nothing overstated about the physical production, which benefits from David Korins’ pungent evocation of a well-worn stage, Rui Rita’s moody lighting and Catherine Zuber’s suitable period clothing. Their tech contributions take one back to the ’50s and then the play prompts one’s troubled mind to consider how many racial stereotypes persist today.