Regional Reviews: Connecticut and the Berkshires
Trouble in Mind
Also see Fred's recent review of Dear Jack, Dear Louise
The actors, situated backstage within a theater, are about to rehearse an anti-lynching play. Wiletta Mayer (Heather Alicia Simms), a seasoned performer, is first to appear and chats with Henry (Richmond Hoxie), who has been a doorman there for decades. A young man named John Nevins (Sideeq Heard) appears, followed by Millie Davis (Chelsea Lee Williams) and Judy Sears (Sarah Lyddan). Sheldon Forrester (Michael Rogers), a longtime stage actor, is obnoxiously vocal. The performers (cast for the play-within-the-play) casually converse and are not entirely in agreement.
Al Manners (John Bambery), the director, is bombastic, boisterous and absolutely self-centered as he leads in his assistant Eddie Fenton (Adam Langdon). The first act is expository and a set-up for the second act. The always-exasperated Manners insists that the cast members express motivation for what they say, where they go, what they do. He screams and demands.
The final act, three days later, opens as Bill O'Wray (James Joseph O'Neil) pontificates as he delivers a ramshackle, ludicrous monologue. An actor who might be termed seasoned or stale, according to each theatregoer's viewpoint, he thinks a lot of himself. The spotlight resumes its focus on Wiletta. She sings well and she's been in plenty of shows during the past decade plus. A wiser soul, she tries to tutor John with advice about how, as an African American, he could survive a dictatorial white director. Later, she directly voices her objections to scripted dialogue and message. Moreover, Wiletta speaks her mind concerning what she considers a degrading approach director Manners takes.
The character of Sheldon Forrester is a Black actor who is very much aware of both his place and potential power. When he was a boy, he witnessed an actual lynching, and playwright Childress supplies him with a moving passage as he recalls that time. Actor Michael Rogers, himself, has an impressive resume including numerous theater, film, and TV turns. He embodies Sheldon, though his enunciation leaves something to be desired. Heather Alicia Simms has enjoyed a prolific acting career as well. Playing Wiletta, Simms is compassionate, precise, and direct; her performance is enduring. She cannot tolerate Manners' disrespect, to put it very mildly.
Judy Sears (a youthful white actress) is complicated. This character went to Yale School of Drama and was raised in Bridgeport, Connecticut. When her Black acting colleagues voice concerns about their play's content as demeaning and worse, Judy tries to speak up. Cast in the part, Sarah Lyddan, herself a skilled Yale School of Drama graduate, is quite effective.
One can fully appreciate Trouble in Mind without awareness of the play's back story. That said, history provides furthering perspective and layering. The Greenwich Mews Theatre run, which lasted for a few months, might have led to a move to Broadway. Producers, however, urged Childress to change her ending and provide something less argumentative and provocative. She tried various times over a period of years, but, for one reason or another, it never seemed quite right. Ultimately, she was frustrated and perhaps that is appropriate since her sometimes searing play is about a group of actors who are increasingly disgruntled and dismayed.
Trouble in Mind is a behind-the-scenes piece filled with tension and implicit racism. The undertone is one of anger mixed, sometimes, with satire. Director Christopher D. Betts maintains a vigorous pace for this work to raise crucial, timely questions that fill the theater with emotion and attitude. The implications are ever real.
Trouble in Mind runs through June 18, 2023, at Hartford Stage, 50 Church St., Hartford CT. For tickets and information, please call 860-527-5151 or visit www.hartfordstage.org.