Mind over matter 

Actor's Express gets into Trouble -- in a good way

Playhouses pay little mind to writer Alice Childress today, even though she was a theatrical pioneer in the 1950s. She was the first woman to win an Obie award, and the first black woman to write a professionally produced Broadway play. Yet now she's probably best remembered for the film adaptation of her novel A Hero Ain't Nothin' But a Sandwich than for her stage work.

What's surprising is not that Actor's Express is staging Childress' drama Trouble in Mind, but that no one else beat the theater to the punch. Trouble in Mind's exploration of the tension between race and art could not be more timely, while the writing proves remarkably fresh, having little of the overheated dialogue or lecturing rhetoric of the "big issue" plays of the time.

The backstage drama takes place in 1957, with a group of black and white actors gathering to rehearse the "explosive" anti-lynching play Chaos in Belleville at a Broadway theater. Though the black actors are keenly aware of the struggles for civil rights down South, they know that even New York arts institutions aren't color-blind, so they keep their thoughts to themselves. Veteran actress Wiletta Mayer (Carol Mitchell-Leon) counsels hotshot young actor John (Theroun Patterson) to downplay his education: "Don't let The Man know that. They don't like for us to go to school."

At first we find Wiletta a little too willing to think the worst of "white folks." But we become more sympathetic the more we learn of the typecasting she's faced. In Trouble's era, African-American artists were overwhelmingly cast as either eye-rolling comic relief or white-worshipping domestics, and even their names were predictable. "She's been every flower in the garden: Gardenia, Magnolia ..." Wiletta says of the maids played by her colleague Millie (Traci Tolmaire).

Al Manners (Daniel May), the play's wunderkind director, wants to tear down preconceived notions -- and that's where the trouble comes in. The director's faith in method-style acting and finding truths by exposing real emotions puts Wiletta in a difficult situation. Manners constantly challenges her to express her true feelings about race, when she's spent her life keeping such emotions under wraps -- especially around white people.

In Childress' play, the difference between method acting and "artificial" performance gets a political dimension. Wiletta movingly sings a spiritual, but Manners isn't satisfied, and makes her "dig deeper" by playing a racially charged word association game. When the agitated Wiletta sings the song again, Mitchell-Leon makes her voice so loud and strangled, it's as if her anger can't find a natural outlet. And when Manners tells her, "You're great until you start thinking," he's not aware of the racial condescension behind the method buzz-words.

Trouble in Mind succumbs to some theatrical cliches, like the playhouse's huggable old doorman (Bill Bouris) or Manners verbally abusing his underlings ("You stupid jerk!") when they get phone messages or doughnut orders wrong. But Manners otherwise offers a fascinating portrait of a mercurial talent, and May captures not just the spoiled artist's self-importance, but his self-pity when things don't go the way he wants.

May's entire cast reveals a striking ability to keep up with Trouble's whiplash changes in tone, from behind-the-scenes comedy to intense social argument to the overblown dramatics of the play-within-the-play. Though Trouble in Mind ends on an ambiguous note that feels unnecessarily evasive, it's a remarkably rich work: You could watch it once for the racial commentary and theater satire, and again for its thoughts on class differences and artistic expression vs. censorship. Compared to the self-consciously provocative works being penned today, Trouble in Mind is hardly a "colored" museum piece.

curt.holman@creativeloafing.com

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