BWW Reviews: TROUBLE IN MIND Excels at Arena Stage

By: Sep. 23, 2011
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One of my many pet peeves is noticing the lack of diversity in theater, films, and television. It took the hit television series "Homocide, Life in the Street" to truly have color-blind casting. The original script did not attach any race to any of the characters. It was the first network show cast that truly was diverse and featured the incredible Andre Braugher (recently nominated for an Emmy Award).

But even today, notice how there seems to still be the toKen Black, the token Indian, the token Asian, the token Hispanic not only in television shows, but on stage and in films.

But that doesn't apply to the Arena Stage where Artistic Director Molly Smith has faced this subject head on. Former Center Stage Artistic Director Irene Lewis did the same in Baltimore.

Well, Smith has corrallEd Lewis (in her first production since leaving her post at Center Stage) to direct Trouble in Mind which had a successful at the Baltimore theater in 2007. I not only saw that production in Baltimore but saw it as well at the Yale Repertory Theatre. Lewis has assembled many from that production at the Arena including the incomparable E. Faye Buter (Wiletta Mayer), Starla Benford (Millie Davis), Thomas Jefferson Byrd (ShelDon Forrester), Daren Kelly (Bill O'Wray), Garret Neergaard (Eddie Fenton) and Laurence O'Dwyer (Henry). Joining them are Brandon J. Dirden (John Neveins), Gretchen Hall (Judy Sears), Marty Lodge (Al Manners), and T. Anthony Quinn (Stagehand).

Playwright Alice Childress, the first African-American to have her plays professionally produced in New York, was please with the success of the play Off-Broadway. The plan was to produce it on Broadway but she refused to bend to the wishes of producers to change the play to make it more palatable for Broadway audiences. So instead of being the first African-American to have a play on Broadway, that distinction went to Lorraine Hansberrry in 1959 with Raisin in the Sun. For those who saw the incredible Wooley Mammoth production of Clyburn Park, see the prequel now getting a critically acclaimed production in Baltimore at the Everyman Theatre.

The play begins with Butler's character entering the stage of a theater to begin rehearsals for a play called "Chaos in Belleville". As she entered, the audience applauded. That just does not happen often. It is a testament to Butler's amazing and impressive contributions to theater and was well-deserved. The part of Wiletta Mayer could hav ebeen written for Butler. She plays a proud actress who has had to suffer the indignities of playing stereotypical roles. Both her and her fellow actor Millie have made successful careers with roles named for flowers (Petunia and Gardinia) and jewelry (Pearl and Open). She gives advice to a young Black actor played wonderfully by Dirden to always smile and laugh at the white man's jokes. She also suggests he not divulge is extensive acting resume and just say that as a child he was in Porgy and Bess.

It quckly becomes apparent that the white Director (wonderfully portrayed by Lodge) has no clue how him minority actors are taking to his interpretation of the play that deals with an offensively misguided anti-lynching message. When the character Forrester (brilliantly play by Bryd) relates his experience as a 9 year-old seeing an actuAl Lynching, you could hear a pin drop in the audience. It is one of the highlights of the play.

Lodge plays Director Al Manners (ironic?) to the hilt. He is so slimy and greasy and obnoxious,you want to go wash your hands. He finds he has to teach the young white actress Judy (the superb Gretchen Hall) where upstage and downstage are located, he does so by physically moving her body around the stage. He can't believe she didn't learn this during her theatrical training at Yale Drama School. (Is this a knock at Yale?)

The character played by Butler must decide does she compromise her ethics to get her first role on Broadway? The very same issue faced playwright Childress who chose not to compromise her play and as a result, this terrific work has never made it to the Great White Way. Well, the Great White Way is no longer just White. It is time this seminal work gets its due. All it needs is a producer. May I suggest that Alicia Keys, who is bringing the wonderful Stickfly to Broadway this fall with Baltimore's Tracie Thoms (done recently at both Arena Stage and the Everyman Theatre) consider doing likewise with Trouble in Mind?

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Trouble in Mind Special Events

Saturday, September 24 from 2-3 p.m. - Making Trouble: Women and Minorities in the Arts.

Tuesday, September 27 from 6-7 p.m. - No Business Like Show Business: Producing on Broadway which will feature a reading of selections from the never produced third act which Childress wrote to please producers who considered a transfer to Broadway.

Wednesday, October 12 from 6-7 p.m. - Black Face in the Media in celebration of Childress' birthday.

Trouble in Mind ends Oct. 23 and lasts aobut 2 hours and 15 minutes. Call 202-488-3300 or visit www.arenastage.org.

The hit musical Oklahoma ends its long successful run October 2.

Next beginning October 7 is The Book Club Play written by Karen Zacarias and directed by Molly Smith.

For comments, write to cgshubow@broadwayworld.com.

Photo Credit: Richard Anderson



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