“White folks can’t stand unhappy Negroes, so laugh,” the veteran black actress instructs the young black actor in “Trouble in Mind,” Alice Childress’s wise and extraordinarily winning comedy-drama about American racial strife as it plays out in a New York rehearsal room, circa 1957.
The counsel of Wiletta Mayer, portrayed in Arena Stage’s wondrously effective production by E. Faye Butler, falls disconcertingly on the ears of Brandon J. Dirden’s John Nevins, who’s been cast along with Wiletta in what sounds like a ghastly Southern play, “Chaos in Belleville.” But while John disdains the idea of pasting on a grin of supplication for the show’s white director, he’s not above accepting a part in a Broadway play that treats black characters in the most patronizing way. It is, after all, a job.
Even if the tensions of “Trouble in Mind” underline ironies we’re all familiar with — Childress wrote the play 56 years ago — there’s an abiding pleasure in a handling this wry, character-rich and well-acted. Director Irene Lewis first staged this production, with some of the same actors, four years ago when she was running Baltimore’s CenterStage. You readily see why she’d want to remount it, especially at Arena, where the work’s classic texture meshes superbly with the company’s expressed mission of shedding light on important American plays.
“Trouble in Mind,” which once upon a time had been on track for Broadway but never made it, materializes on the Kreeger stage as if it had been long-buried treasure. Discovering that it’s anything but musty — it percolates with cleverness and spiky humor — is half the fun. The impression is doubtless aided by the pleasing period picture engineered by set and costume designers David Korins and Catherine Zuber.
And it’s most assuredly affirmed in the ensemble Lewis has assembled. Anchored by Butler’s conflicted Wiletta, who’s spent a lifetime quietly resenting the servile roles and marginal status accorded to black actors, the cast gives the dramatist’s backstage barbs all the vinegary authority they deserve.
To an actor, the performers have grand meetings of the minds with their characters, especially that compact pillar of excellence, Laurence O’Dwyer, as the geezer of a backstage gofer, Henry, and Starla Benford as Millie, a long-suffering assayer of stereotypes who’d give her right eye if she could just once forgo wearing a bandanna onstage.
Marty Lodge, playing the superior, self-consumed director, and Gretchen Hall, as a cloyingly empathetic white actress eager to share her progressive racial attitudes, offer rewarding layers of authenticity, and Dirden brings to his portrayal a young actor’s sense of the working of his charm. Best of all may be Thomas Jefferson Byrd in his commandingly appealing turn as Sheldon, an old-school black actor desirous of nothing more — on the stage as in life — than making as few waves as possible. (His devastating delivery of the play’s centerpiece speech, about a crime against humanity he witnessed as a child, is guaranteed to chill you to the marrow.)
“Trouble in Mind’s” irreverence must have seemed like a fairly cold slap to mainstream audiences back in the 1950s, at the infancy of the civil rights movement. The work is, of course, a slice of theatrical life as an emblem of the state of American race relations, a portrait of the psychological segregation being practiced even among enlightened people. It is, I think, one of the best plays about racism ever written. On the subject of the shameful niche to which black actresses were consigned, the play is scathingly funny, with bitterness-tinged allusions to sharecroppers and maids and the names their characters were given — always, confoundingly, after flowers (such as “Petunia”) or jewels (“Ruby”).
Childress’s play begins as Broadway rehearsals start for “Chaos in Belleville,” which concerns the uproar in a small Southern town over the bold decision by the black military-bound character portrayed by Dirden’s John to enrage local whites and cast his vote in an upcoming election. Though the plot seems crafted to elicit the sympathy of liberal white theatergoers — “Dynamic subject,” the shallow director mutters condescendingly, “hard to come to grips with on the screen, TV, anywhere” — the unseen, presumably white playwright doles out to black actors the same offensive sorts of roles they’ve always had to play.
The piece weaves an elegant latticework as it exposes the characters’ attitudes and biases. The crux, however, is in how much humiliation Wiletta is willing to swallow in playing as written the terrified mother of the young man who wants to vote. And though in Wiletta’s confrontation with her director, Childress looks too melodramatically for a villain, she’s an astute observer of human behavior in general, and actors in particular. To her credit, she gives Lodge’s Al his due as a realist, with a speech about the limits of how much truth the ticket-buying public is ready to digest.
Butler, who until recently played Aunt Eller to robustly folksy success in Arena’s revival of “Oklahoma!,” does Childress’s character proud. Wiletta is in almost as much need of consciousness-raising as the least racially sensitive of the white characters, a clueless older actor played by Daren Kelly. Butler’s endearingly accessible portrayal gets us on Wiletta’s side as she eventually arrives at her valuable self-discovery about how far she’s come as a black woman and an actress.
It’s not often you find a work with as much to say and as little renown as “Trouble in Mind,” which is not so much a lost play as one that has suffered from a woeful lack of attention. Lewis and Arena here demonstrate why the string on that bare light bulb in America’s dramatic attic is sometimes well worth a tug.
by Alice Childress. Directed by Irene Lewis. Lighting, Rui Rita and Carl Faber; sound, David Budries; hair and makeup, Jon Carter. With, Garrett Neergaard and T. Anthony Quinn. About 2 hours 15 minutes. Through Oct. 23 at Arena Stage, 1011 Sixth St. SW. Visit www.arenastage.org or call 202-488-3300.