In the foreground on the left, a white man in white shirt, suspenders, and tan trousers faces a Black woman in a 1950s-style blue dress. Behind them on the left we see a Black man, also in shirt, trousers, and suspenders, and a white woman in a brown suit dress, looking at the argument unfolding between the two characters in the foreground.
From left: Tim Decker, Kenneth D. Johnson, Shariba Rivers, and Jordan Ashley Grier in Trouble in Mind at TimeLine Theatre Credit: Liz Lauren

Alice Childress’s Trouble in Mind made its off-Broadway debut in 1955, but it never made the leap to the Great White Way (emphasis most definitely on “White”). The white producers demanded that Childress give her story about racism in the American theater a happier ending depicting racial harmony. (Pause for irony.) Childress refused at first, but out of concern for the paychecks of the off-Broadway cast and crew, she reluctantly gave in. But when it was optioned for Broadway—with the further demand that she retitle it So Early Monday Morning—she decided her integrity was worth more than being the first Black woman playwright to make it to Broadway. So that honor went instead in 1959 to Lorraine Hansberry and A Raisin in the Sun.

Given that the current off-Broadway revival of Hansberry’s classic has sparked its own controversy in the form of star Tonya Pinkins’s very public excoriation of New York Times critic Jesse Green, TimeLine’s production of Trouble in Mind, directed by Ron OJ Parson, feels particularly timely. Among other things, Pinkins called out Green for missing the central thrust of Robert O’Hara’s production, which explicitly places the emphasis on the women around Walter Lee Younger. Pinkins wrote, “There is zero irony in the fact that this first production of Lorraine’s play to be done as a protest play which centers the women as Lorraine intended would be misunderstood and panned by the New York Times.” (Filipina American actor Sara Porkalob, currently starring in the Broadway revival of 1776, also talked about what she perceived as the racial failings of that production in a controversial interview in New York Magazine earlier this fall; she later apologized for some of her comments.)

Trouble in Mind
Through 12/18: Wed-Sat 7:30 PM, Fri 8 PM, Sat 4 and 8 PM, Sun 2 PM; also Thu 12/8 and 12/15 2 PM, Fri 12/2 socially distanced performances, Fri 12/9 and Sat 12/10 4 PM open captions, Fri 12/16 audio description; TimeLine Theatre, 615 W. Wellington, 773-281-8463 x6, timelinetheatre.com, $42-$57 (35 percent student discount; $25 tickets to U.S. military personnel, veterans, first responders, and their spouses and family)

The sad truth is that Childress’s story of Black actors forced to negotiate making a living by walking into the dramatic minefield of racial stereotypes (and suffering the further indignity of white “allies” pretending that those stereotypes “humanize” the plight of Black Americans) could fit into any year since she penned it. (Childress was married for a time to Alvin Childress, a veteran of the Federal Theatre Project and American Negro Theater who starred as Amos in the television version of The Amos ‘n’ Andy Show, so she had a front-row seat for the ways Black actors in the 1950s had to assimilate to make the leap to mainstream acceptance.) It could still be timely some decades hence, if we don’t start seriously addressing the institutional racism, hypocrisy, and micro-and macroaggresions that run rampant in both commercial and nonprofit theater (as the 2020 We See You White American Theater manifesto laid out).

Childress’s play finally did get a Broadway production last year (with the original ending), winning four Tony Award nominations. But the playwright, who died at 77 in 1994, never saw it. She also never enjoyed the success Hansberry achieved (though Hansberry lived not even half as long as Childress). Even talking about these two women in parallel can feel like feeding a toxic narrative: as Childress once observed, “I just hate to see the ‘first’ Negro, the ‘first’ Black, the ‘first’ one. It’s almost like it’s an honor rather than a disgrace. We should be the 50th and the 1,000th by this point.”

The play-within-the-play in Childress’s story is a melodramatic hunk of tripe entitled Chaos in Belleville, and it’s about a Black family of sharecroppers in the south whose son, the symbolically named “Job,” faces a lynch mob when he insists on voting. It’s of course written by a white man, and directed by another. And it’s the conflict primarily between that director and star Wiletta Mayer, who plays the mother, that drives the narrative.

Wiletta has spent a lifetime playing maids and mammies, and she jokes with the younger Black actress Millie Davis about how, between them, they’ve played “every flower in the garden, and every jewel.” Sure enough, their characters’ names in the play are Ruby and Petunia, respectively. Initially, though, Wiletta mostly keeps her complaints away from the ears of pettish white director Al Manners, preferring to counsel newcomer John Nevins (who plays Job) about how to survive amid the scarce pickings for Black performers. (One of the funniest bits of advice she gives is for him to tell everyone he was one of the children in the original production of Porgy and Bess—a ruse that seems to pay off when the white people all act with knowing recognition upon hearing the lie.)

But as Manners pushes his own toxic dumbed-down version of Method acting on Wiletta, and as she increasingly feels frustrated by the offensive unbelievability of the story, sparks begin to fly. There’s a difference between a regular old stinkeroo of a play, and one that, like Belleville, presents a Black woman willing to sacrifice her own son, and Wiletta knows that difference too well to give in.

TimeLine’s production stars Shariba Rivers as Wiletta, and it’s a stunning performance that should not be missed. Rivers, to me, has always been an intensely watchable and interesting presence on stage, no matter the material, and it’s a pure joy to see her move here with nimble leaps from sardonic asides to anguished take-no-prisoners confrontations with Tim Decker’s Manners. (In a twist of ironic nomenclature, the director’s a man with no manners whatsoever, and damned little self-awareness, though he apparently chugs self-pity by the gallon.) 

Her interplay with the other Black actors in the backstage setting (captured with careful detail by scenic designer Caitlin McLeod and properties designer Jennifer Wernau) runs from maternal warmth with Vincent Jordan’s Nevins to conspiratorial sisterhood with Tarina J. Bradshaw’s Millie to old-married-folks ease with Kenneth D. Johnson’s Sheldon Forrester. Forrester seems the most malleable of the ensemble, but he stops everyone in their tracks with his story of witnessing a lynching as a child. 

The white actors in the show—Jordan Ashley Griers’s Judy Sears, a Yale drama grad who is apparently piquing the physical interest of Manners, and Guy Van Swearingen’s neurotic character actor Bill O’Wray—predictably fail to stand up for Wiletta. Bill, who plays the white landowner in Belleville, doesn’t even like to eat lunch with his Black castmates. The director’s assistant, Eddie Fenton (Adam Shalzi), cringes whenever Manners aims his wrath at him. 

But everyone else is also terrified of losing their job, especially Sheldon, who seems on the verge of homelessness. (Judy’s worst problem is that she might have to move back to her parents’ comfortable Connecticut home.) Millie’s nice duds (eye-catching costumes across the board by Christine Pascual) can’t make up for the fact that she and her husband, who works for the railroad, are also on a constant financial knife’s edge. Indeed, the only person who seems immune to Manners’s rages is old stagehand Henry (Charles Stransky), who relishes memories of past theatrical triumphs (including seeing Wiletta in a musical revue, the details of which he remembers with pinpoint precision, much to her delight).

How do you make meaningful change when the people who are “allowing” you to participate in grotesque versions of your own stories hold such power over you? How can you achieve collaboration with people who tell you they want to help you, but turn on you the moment their own authority is questioned? (“You’re great until you start thinking,” Decker’s Manners tells Rivers’s Wiletta at one point—and he seems to believe he’s given her a generous compliment.) That’s the urgent conundrum threaded throughout the heart of Trouble in Mind. Parson’s funny but wrenching production places us up close to these characters as they wrestle with their consciences and each other. The trouble Childress anatomized in her play is still very much in mind, playing out on- and offstage with depressing regularity.