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Swallow what you mind

Trouble in Mind is fresh, funny, and urgent despite its age

In Trouble in Mind, the actors must play two roles: the play, and the play within the play.
In Trouble in Mind, the actors must play two roles: the play, and the play within the play.

Some background: Alice Childress’s Trouble in Mind won an Obie Award for best off-Broadway show in 1955. It was scheduled to move to Broadway, which would make Childress the first African-American to have a play produced on the Great White Way. But the producers wanted the title changed and a happier ending. Childress said no. She refused to compromise her artistic standards, and the play got “lost” for two decades. It was rediscovered around 1978, when her novel A Hero Ain’t Nothin’ But a Sandwich became a movie, and she was rediscovered.

Let’s say you’re a female actor. You just landed your first lead role in a Broadway play. Up to now you’ve done only demeaning “character parts.” You were glad for the work but knew you had much more. Here’s your chance, only there’s a marquee-sized flaw in the script: your character must do something she’d never do in real life. Should you speak up?

Okay, now let’s say the woman’s African-American, and its 1955, and a play that knee-jerk white producers consider ennobling abounds with racist stereotypes. The other African-American actors must shuck and jive and say “Lord have mercy” every two minutes. Should they object? And your character must turn her son over to a lynch mob? Should you?

Trouble in Mind takes place in a brick-lined, work-light-lit rehearsal space. The veteran African-American actors must play two roles: their character and their role in the company — the latter’s a head-bowed, don’t rock the boat being who agrees to whatever the director wants. Even when he yells at them not to “think.” So onstage they may get to play a subtext but backstage, no way. Just go along and be glad for the opportunity. Or, as sage Sheldon Forrester says, “swallow what you mind.”

And just how good is the play, Chaos in Belleville? Because there’s so much lying in rehearsal, at first it’s hard to tell. The director, Al Manners, defends it with many a rhetorical flourish. Of course, he would; it’s his Big Chance — his first directing job on Broadway. But when you hear the stilted dialogue and watch the actors roll their eyes, it’s clear that the chaos refers to the story and the text.

Except for a couple of eleventh-hour monologues that could have been trimmed, Trouble in Mind feels fresh and urgent. Childress opens up questions that most plays about race today just glance at. It also captures the feel of rehearsals: the optimism, the work, the differences of opinion beneath chipper veneers — a whole cross-section — without typing the characters in the process.

It’s also, under Delicia Turner Sonnenberg’s direction at Moxie Theatre, very very funny.

The ensemble cast’s a veritable all-star team of local talent. Foremost among equals: as Al Manners (who has none), Ruff Yeager came on too strong at first; once he settled in Yeager made the director a towering contradiction, unknown to himself, until the end; Monique Gaffney grows and then glows as Wiletta Mayer can no longer remain silent.

The backstage comedy-drama makes occasional references to protests in Montgomery, Alabama. On December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks inspired the Montgomery Bus Boycott by remaining seated.


Trouble in Mind

  • Moxie Theatre, 6663 El Cajon Boulevard, Suite N, Rolando
  • $20 - $27

Trouble in Mind, by Alice Childress

Directed by Delicia Turner Sonnenberg; cast: Monique Gaffney, Samantha Ginn, Tom Kilroy, Cashae Monya, Victor Morris, Justin Lang, Vimel Sephus, Ruff Yeager, Nick Young; scenic design, Angelica Ynfante; lighting, Sherrice Mojgani; costumes, Jacinda Johnston-Fischer

Playing through February 22; Thursday at 7:00 p.m., Friday and Saturday at 8:00 p.m. Matinee Sunday at 2:00 p.m. 858-598-7620. moxietheatre.com

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In Trouble in Mind, the actors must play two roles: the play, and the play within the play.
In Trouble in Mind, the actors must play two roles: the play, and the play within the play.

Some background: Alice Childress’s Trouble in Mind won an Obie Award for best off-Broadway show in 1955. It was scheduled to move to Broadway, which would make Childress the first African-American to have a play produced on the Great White Way. But the producers wanted the title changed and a happier ending. Childress said no. She refused to compromise her artistic standards, and the play got “lost” for two decades. It was rediscovered around 1978, when her novel A Hero Ain’t Nothin’ But a Sandwich became a movie, and she was rediscovered.

Let’s say you’re a female actor. You just landed your first lead role in a Broadway play. Up to now you’ve done only demeaning “character parts.” You were glad for the work but knew you had much more. Here’s your chance, only there’s a marquee-sized flaw in the script: your character must do something she’d never do in real life. Should you speak up?

Okay, now let’s say the woman’s African-American, and its 1955, and a play that knee-jerk white producers consider ennobling abounds with racist stereotypes. The other African-American actors must shuck and jive and say “Lord have mercy” every two minutes. Should they object? And your character must turn her son over to a lynch mob? Should you?

Trouble in Mind takes place in a brick-lined, work-light-lit rehearsal space. The veteran African-American actors must play two roles: their character and their role in the company — the latter’s a head-bowed, don’t rock the boat being who agrees to whatever the director wants. Even when he yells at them not to “think.” So onstage they may get to play a subtext but backstage, no way. Just go along and be glad for the opportunity. Or, as sage Sheldon Forrester says, “swallow what you mind.”

And just how good is the play, Chaos in Belleville? Because there’s so much lying in rehearsal, at first it’s hard to tell. The director, Al Manners, defends it with many a rhetorical flourish. Of course, he would; it’s his Big Chance — his first directing job on Broadway. But when you hear the stilted dialogue and watch the actors roll their eyes, it’s clear that the chaos refers to the story and the text.

Except for a couple of eleventh-hour monologues that could have been trimmed, Trouble in Mind feels fresh and urgent. Childress opens up questions that most plays about race today just glance at. It also captures the feel of rehearsals: the optimism, the work, the differences of opinion beneath chipper veneers — a whole cross-section — without typing the characters in the process.

It’s also, under Delicia Turner Sonnenberg’s direction at Moxie Theatre, very very funny.

The ensemble cast’s a veritable all-star team of local talent. Foremost among equals: as Al Manners (who has none), Ruff Yeager came on too strong at first; once he settled in Yeager made the director a towering contradiction, unknown to himself, until the end; Monique Gaffney grows and then glows as Wiletta Mayer can no longer remain silent.

The backstage comedy-drama makes occasional references to protests in Montgomery, Alabama. On December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks inspired the Montgomery Bus Boycott by remaining seated.


Trouble in Mind

  • Moxie Theatre, 6663 El Cajon Boulevard, Suite N, Rolando
  • $20 - $27

Trouble in Mind, by Alice Childress

Directed by Delicia Turner Sonnenberg; cast: Monique Gaffney, Samantha Ginn, Tom Kilroy, Cashae Monya, Victor Morris, Justin Lang, Vimel Sephus, Ruff Yeager, Nick Young; scenic design, Angelica Ynfante; lighting, Sherrice Mojgani; costumes, Jacinda Johnston-Fischer

Playing through February 22; Thursday at 7:00 p.m., Friday and Saturday at 8:00 p.m. Matinee Sunday at 2:00 p.m. 858-598-7620. moxietheatre.com

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Comments
1

Just saw Trouble in Mind 1* last night. It is not to be missed! Monique Gaffney's lead is powerfully played, and I left trying to count the layers of personalities in this play-within-a-play. It tells a truth that still resonates today in many aspects. Bravo! to Delicia Turner Sonnenberg for another great production at this best-kept-secret theatre in San Diego.

Feb. 7, 2015

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