Trouble in Mind
"Trouble in Mind" by Alice Childress and the second offering in Intiman Theater’s summer festival is one of those plays that you read about and think, I really ought to go see that show, it would be good for me to see that show, but I don’t really want to go see that show, because it’s about race and racial issues are both challenging and depressing.
But Childress is challenging in a sharply hilarious way that is compelling to such a degree that you’ll wonder where the time went at the end of the evening. This almost 60-year-old play still prickles with life and energy. Director Valerie Curtis-Newton offered to knock it out of the park this season at Intiman, and she has with this marvelous production.
Set in the 1950’s when Montgomery, Alabama was in the news for the racial changes stirring there, "Trouble in Mind" takes place in a theater where director Al Manners (Tim Gouran) dreams of saying something important about race relations with his play, and veteran actress Wiletta (Tracy Michelle Hughes) arrives brimming over with her own dreams of being a real actress after a career of being pigeon-holed because of her race.
Gradually the other players filter in: John Nevins (Andrew Lee Creech), a young up and coming actor who bristles at Wiletta’s advice to kowtow to the white people, but who is hungry enough to take whatever he’s given. Sheldon Forrester (G. Valmont Thomas), another veteran performer like Wiletta, who expresses his opinion that "there are two kinds of people who got this world messed up: the colored and the white folks."
Judy Sears (Skylar Tatro), a girlish young woman cast as the daughter in the fictional play, who trots after Millie Davis (Shontina "Tina" Vernon), a stylishly-dressed sharp-tongued woman, for her approval but who won’t give her the time of day. Bill O’Wray (Mark Anders) plays Judy’s father and spends his time avoiding the African-American cast members because he just can’t ever say anything right.
All the dreams quickly turn sour when the actors begin to read the play. Wiletta and Millie, after a little verbal sparring about how Millie always has a flower name and Wiletta is always named after a gemstone in every production, find out that their names in this show are Petunia and Ruby. Sheldon practices his lines, which mostly consist of "Yes, sir!", "No, sir!" and "Right away, sir!" and his face could be a play of its own as he digests the information that for one whole scene he has to sit and whittle a stick.
Judy complains about her parents because "they keep expecting something terrible to happen to me, like being murdered!" and when John flirts with her, Millie warns him away, saying, "You are the terrible thing they expect to happen to her!"
The actors try to make their peace with the roles and with their disappointment, while they also try to make peace with one another in real life across a deep divide of experience. Wiletta bends and bends fighting to hold onto her dream until finally she runs into a compromise she just can’t make.
When the fragile peace shatters, the marvelous thing is that we are left with hope as Wiletta and Henry (Burton Curtis), the old Irish janitor who has his own share of run-ins with Manners’ disdain, comfort one another across their own racial divide.
Hughes as Wiletta is both tender and powerful, full of contradictions, and with a hell of a singing voice. Thomas as Sheldon puts on the perfect grinning shuffling persona, which falls away displaying his depths as he recounts a terrible story from his past.
Vernon as Millie has perfect comic timing with her sideways glances and penetrating one-liners, and Creech rounds out the heart of the play as the educated young man facing the reality of his future as a Black actor for the first time.
It’s true it might be good for you to see this show, but that’s not why you should go see it. Go see it to have a wonderful evening out, transported into the lives of these richly drawn characters.
"Trouble in Mind" runs through Aug. 29 at Intiman Theatre, 201 Mercer St. in Seattle. For info or tickets, call 206-441-7178 or visit www.intiman.org.