Arena Stage, in Washington D.C. opens it’s season with a play about making a play. Alice Childress’s play, “Trouble in Mind”, brings us to the rehearsal space for a new production of a mix-race cast in the 1950’s. Over the course of the evening, we will learn the basic plot and characters of the play that they are rehearsing, the interaction of generations, and the conflicts between the past and future, both for these players as well as for society. This is a play about transition and prejudice. What is amazing is that “Trouble in Mind” was written and produced in the mid-1950’s, not today.
We entered the theatre to take our seats about 20 minutes before the curtain would rise. There was no curtain. That stage was open, but not bare. We could see David Korins’ set design in every detail from the brick side and back walls to the low hung lighting fixtures with rope and counterweights, to the hodge-podge mix of chair, tables, water glasses, and ash trays. The Stagehand (T. Anthony Quinn), a tall, lumbering fellow, moved slowly about the stage, arranging items here and there, like a tugboat leading ships into his port. He continued this until the announcement for the audience to turn off electronic devices, then he turned on the stage lights. I wondered how long he pondered how to be busy on stage, solo, for the 30 minutes between when the house opened and the “performance” began.
In contrast to Stagehand, was Eddie Fenton (Garret Neergaard), the frantic stage manager. While Stagehand was large and slow; Eddie was small and darting, trying to rearrange the stage to the preferences of the director, Al Manners (Marty Lodge). Eddie was a contrast to nearly all the other players. He was the one who would make them all look good, while he took the scowls, insults, and drudgery of making a play come together. When Al became histrionic and stormed away, Eddie would calm everyone then attend to the director. When the actors took a break for lunch, Eddie would attend to tasks that would prepare for the next rehearsal. In one discussion between Eddie and the leading lady, we see a spark of individuality and ingenuity, which the director and other actors quickly stifle.
Al Manners, on the other hand, is loud, demanding, and full of external confidence and internal doubt. He has ideas. His ideas must rule. When the players do not respond or challenge him, he derails them with unexpected antics and baffling instructions. At first, we might consider him as merely narcissistic and controlling. But, his actions turn out to be more ambiguous. He rants, but also heightens the cast to a fuller awareness of the emotions and experiences they bring to the rehearsal and production. He flirts, but also expresses compassion for the “colored” actors who have few options but to play mammies, slaves, and demasculinated men. At intermission, we wanted to loath him as a bombastic womanizer. By the final curtain, we empathized with his frustration with trying to push society with the play, while also filling the house to make the show break even for his backers.
Wiletta Mayer (E. Faye Butler) is the first of the players that we meet. She arrives shortly before John Nevins (Brandon J. Dirden). She is the seasoned actress, called on by Al to take the part of the mother in the play. John will portray her son. This is his first production. Before others arrive, she quickly tells him what to expect and how to behave. Basically, say whatever the white director wants to hear. After this interchange, Millie Davis (Starla Benford), Sheldon Forrester (Thomas Jefferson Byrd), and Judy Sears (Gretchen Hall) enter, doffing their layers of winter coats.
Millie’s character is one of the servants. Her role will be to add some jokes and drama to the play. Sheldon is the father in the production, but also symbolically for the players. He appears to have been in many previous plays with them, usually in the role of a butler, or agreeable negro. Judy will play the plantation owner’s daughter, who is sympathetic to their share croppers’ desire to have some pleasant times (barn dance) and protection, when the local white community turns to threats of violence in the play. In the second act we will meet the plantation owner, protector of the share croppers, Bill O’Wray (Daren Kelly), who appears mainly concerned with keeping his ulcer quiet, which is a metaphor for his relationships with Al and the other cast members.
One final character, Henry (Laurence O’Dwyer), has been entering and exiting the rehearsal space throughout these other exchanges. He is the jolly Irishman, whose father performed vaudeville. He has been involved in theatre, mostly backstage, for 50 years. He is as much a fixture of the stage as the bricks and lights. He is the “if those walls could talk” character, who reminds the others and us that we are in the theatre, watching a group of people pretending to be people, with the intent of entertaining and transforming us. Before the lights come on, he is there. When the lights dim, he will remain there, forever older than we might guess.
The first transition I saw in “Trouble in Mind” is that of generations. Sheldon and Henry are old enough to recall stories of slavery, for Sheldon, and Home Rule struggles in Ireland, for Henry. They lack formal education, and have survived in the theatre by doing what others ask. Over time, we realize that Sheldon reads only enough to learn his lines, which are mostly “Yes, sir…. Yes, mama…” and to whittle to the side of the stage while the white community foments outside. Whittled down is a stark image for Sheldon, for he has been whittled down by his life experiences: from the violence that he saw as a boy, to having to live in a rooming house because no community will rent him an apartment. Al owns them, for even at their age, neither can live without the income that their jobs provides.
Wiletta, Millie, and O’Wray represent the old school actors, who learned by performing, always performing. They have their connections, and believe that to keep their jobs they must bow to every demand made of them, whether this is for one of the color actresses to bend over to pick up a crumpled paper, or for O’Wray to go out for lunch with the other cast members (which upsets his ulcer, even though he professes to respect them regardless of race). Al manipulates them, for he knows that they have come up by hard work and obedience, even when they disagreed with the script and direction.
John and Judy have both completed high school and taken acting classes. This is their first production. Both approach it with excitement and naivety. Both bring ideals about social integration. Al can only capture their energy, for they represent the transition that he wants to promote through his productions. But, their learning is is books, classes, and rehearsals. They lack life experience, which will bring them judgment and depth of character.
I generally think of the 1960’s as a period of social transition. The 1950’s were the calm after World War II and before Elvis and the Beatles. Through “Trouble in Mind”, Childress demonstrates that the 1950’s were a period of social transition. From a generation restricted from education to one taught under separate but equal standards; from segregated entertainment to mixed and integrated casts and audiences; from eating only with your own kind, to joining in meals with your peers regardless of race: these are the transitions that Childress brings out in the play. But, she recognizes that society can only accept so much change at one time. Wiletta and Al’s verbal fights bring this out. “No mother would give up her son like this…”, Wiletta protests about the script. “A paying audience won’t come to a play like that…”, Al retorts. Transitions are pushed by ideas and restrained by conformity.
“Trouble in Mind” is about prejudice. What do we expect of others and how does this direct our attitudes and actions toward them? While on the surface, most of accusations of prejudice are toward Al, both as a white man and the director, but each character has prejudices about each other character. The play they are rehearsing confines the colored actors to roles of servants and the upstart young colored man, and the white actors to the roles of the benevolent plantation owner and sympathetic daughter. Wiletta and Millie joke about being cast as flowers (Gardenia, Magnolia, and Chrysanthemum) and jewels (Crystal, Emerald, Pearl) only to find that they will play “Petunia” and “Ruby”. Wiletta’s initial advice to John, to appease the white director, has as much prejudice about those in authority as Al’s browbeating of Eddie.
The play suggests that we can only begin to recognize and change our prejudices when we have a voice. Sheldon begins this process in the play when he relates a story about his childhood, watching violence in his community. When he screamed he made no sound. At that moment, we could hear the terror of his silence throughout the theatre. But, transformation of prejudices is neither easy nor without cost. The colored actors begin to question the structure of the play, to voice their ambivalence and disagreement, only to find that the brick walls of the rehearsal stage are solid and unyielding. Our hope lingers with the daring of Al’s direction, the promise of education in John and Judy, and the encouragement of Henry, who tells Wiletta to step to the center of the stage and recite “anything… something from the Bible, like the 23 Psalm…”. And, she steps forward and recites, “Behold how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity. It is like the precious ointment upon the head, that ran down upon the beard, even Aaron’s beard: that went down to the skirts of his garments; As the dew of Hermon, and as the dew that descended upon the mountains of Zion: for there the Lord commanded the blessing, even life for evermore (Psalm 133:1-3).
Some might wonder, why Arena Stage would produce a play about integration now that we have integrated schools and universities, Ophra being one of the wealthiest women in the world, and a black president. Is this merely history? I think not. We are always in periods of transition and haunted by our prejudices. I remember seeing Arena Stage’s production of Arthur Miller’s “View From The Bridge” a few season’s back. It is about the Italian immigrant community in the 1930’s. What I thought about during that production was the ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) raid on the Moorefield poultry plant shortly before the performance. About 100 workers were arrested and sent to various facilities in the mid-west for deportation hearings. A few months later, buried in the school report was a notice that about 25 students had disappeared the the weeks following this event. Our history is our present, with new names inserted. We are a couple of generations beyond John and Judy, but we have directed our prejudices elsewhere. Without a voice, such as Arena Stage, we will only scream in silence.