Stage

Trouble in Mind at Main Street Was Ahead of its Time and All Too Timely Still

(L-R) Ansonia E. Jones and Manning Mpinduzi-Mott in Main Street Theater's production of Trouble in Mind.
(L-R) Ansonia E. Jones and Manning Mpinduzi-Mott in Main Street Theater's production of Trouble in Mind. Photo by Pin Lim
If there's another more prescient play than Alice Childress's Trouble in Mind (1955), roaring through Main Street Theater, I don't know it.

This forgotten drama, all but buried since its 91-performances off-Broadway during the Eisenhower era, is so contemporary it's frightening. Potent, theatrical, intelligent, and thoroughly entertaining, Trouble shakes you with the past and rattles you with the present. It's its own tsunami.

Childress was no shrinking violet. Through a career that spanned four decades, she always championed the downtrodden, the “have nots among the haves,” as she once said. But her theatrical activism usually ran into an intractable white wall. Trouble caused her problems from the start. In its unflinching dissection of '50s black actors who are so desperate for work that they will demean themselves with roles of mammies, maids, porters, and bellhops; it's a call to arms. Yes, a chosen few will rise to semi-stardom – Hattie MacDaniel, Paul Robeson, The Nicholas Brothers, Lena Horne, Louise Beavers, Clarence Muse, Stepin Fetchit – but in the late '40s, early '50s, there were no Sidney Poitiers, Harry Belafontes, Audra McDonalds, Ben Vereens. They came later, and Childress, unheralded, presaged their rise into the future spotlight.

We're in rehearsal for a new play, Chaos in Belleville, set in the Jim Crow south, by white playwright (unseen), and directed by white director Al Manners (Rhett Martinez, channeling Elia Kazan). The lead role has fallen to black actress Wiletta Mayer (an immensely forceful Tené A. Carter). She's been in the business 25 years and this is her big chance, probably her last – a starring role in a significant play on Broadway. Unfortunately, the drama is a farcical mess that has surface social significance written all over it. The characters, even the white ones, are archetypes, stereotypes, showboat throwbacks: darkies, toms, virginal ingenues, bucks. It's unplayable as written. When Wiletta finally realizes the play is bunk, her crusade for truth begins in earnest. This conflict drives Childress's play.

The actors are grateful to be hired, and when the white guys aren't in the room they come alive with spiky camaraderie. They all realize what they've had to put up with in their careers: humiliation, ingratiation, subservience, the subtle racism, false laughs. The last role Millie played (a prickly yet needy Ansonia E. Jones) had her shrieking “Lordy, Lordy” all night. Wiletta lays out the rules of the game to newbie actor John (Alric Davis): laugh at the jokes, praise the play, butter up the white folks, don't make waves. “They call it being a yes-man. You either do it and stay or don’t do it and get out.” Old timer Sheldon (Manning Mpinduzi-Mott, who steals all his scenes with effortless grace) plays the game like the ravaged pro he is. His striking monologue about witnessing a lynching when he was a boy is terrifically show-stopping and terribly moving. It's both Childress's and Mpinduzi-Mott's shining moment. Director Michelle James knows exactly when Childress should spit or whisper. The ebb and flow is masterfully handled.

Judy (Ginger Mouton) is the clueless ingenue, graduate of Yale Drama School and hopelessly out of her depth. Bill (Rutherford Cravens) is the hack actor who's always working and doesn't want to eat lunch and be seen with his black cast. He's better than that. Eddie (Tyler R. Rooney) is Al's flunky, the stage manager who answers the phone and gets excoriated by Al for answering it. And there's former vaudeville star Henry (Carl Masterson), the theater doorman and gofer. If there's an actor who twinkles any brighter than Masterson, please show him to me. His cheery advice to Wiletta, a bit addled but always said with a wisp of faded smile, sparks her onward in a way.

Trouble in Mind is very much of its time, like early Inge or Miller. It's well-made with choreographed exits and entrances; splendid monologues at just the correct moment; wave-like climaxes and gentle comedowns; and well-drawn characters with moxie and heart. But most surprisingly, it's so modern. It's so now and fresh. It attacks “soft bigotry of low expectations” with unsparing insight and biting satire. It puts it in its place with a well-timed, mighty slap. It's brash and bold, sassy and wise – much too much for '50s Broadway.

No wonder Childress had such problems with it. Her producers wanted it on Broadway, but demanded changes to soften it and make it more palatable to (white) audiences. Childress acquiesced. Who doesn't want her play on Broadway – the first black writer to be so honored? She toiled on revisions for two years, changing the title to the strange “So Early Monday Morning,” but she hated what it had become. She couldn't recognize it anymore. Her voice was gone. The power was gone. Like Wiletta, she had enough and handed them the original version. Like the white power structure she mocked in Trouble, they said no.

Trouble in Mind never made it to Broadway until last November in a limited run at the Roundabout Theatre. It was a long overdue shining debut and worthy of the Tony Award nominations the production received. Main Street Theater should be lauded – again (as with their regional premieres of Coast of Utopia, Wolf Hall, Light in the Piazza) – for their prescience in bringing this lost masterpiece to Houston. Trouble in Mind is glorious theater.

Trouble in Mind continues through October 16 at 7:30 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays; and 3 p.m. Sundays at Main Street Theater, Rice Village, 2540 Times Boulevard. For more information, call 713-524-6706 or visit mainstreettheater.com. $35-$59.
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D.L. Groover has contributed to countless reputable publications including the Houston Press since 2003. His theater criticism has earned him a national award from the Association of Alternative Newsmedia (AAN) as well as three statewide Lone Star Press Awards for the same. He's co-author of the irreverent appreciation, Skeletons from the Opera Closet (St. Martin's Press), now in its fourth printing.
Contact: D. L. Groover