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Trouble in Mind
by Summer Banks
The curtain never opens or closes on the stage, covered in Michael Locher's set that eerily and fittingly resembles the bare Yale Repertory Theatre stage. Thankfully, this backstage drama has much more substance than any typical actor-dramatic farce. Singer Wiletta Mayer (E. Faye Butler) has finally secured a starring role in a Broadway play. The only catch is that the play, Chaos in Belleville, is absolutely awful. And not only awful, but also disturbingly racist.
just a couple of changes (in CAPS): The racial atmosphere in Trouble's New York is tense and turbulent, and accurately reflected in the cast dynamics. Each character reflects a certain social position and moral view — Uncle Tom, practical/materialistic, passively compassionate— but none of these choices seem forced. A person simply had no choice but to fall into some category or another during this time.
The pressure of McCarthyism, the shadow of which hangs heavy over this play, echoes the compromises made over racial issues. Both sets of backstage connections influence the action within rehearsals, which are strongly influenced by director Al Manners' (Kevin O'Rourke) Stanislavskian tendencies. Every action and every line must be justified, he insists. He uses "unconventional" techniques to extract the honest results he wants from his cast, but these only lead him down a dangerous road with Wiletta.
Soon the very fact of honesty in theater seems much less simple than it first appeared. How can an action be justified truthfully, as Al directs, if there is no truth in it? Dovetailing with this question of theatrical truth, Childress, through Al, asks what the theater should do in morally charged social moments. Should a less than truthful message be promulgated if it will help promote peace and ultimately, perhaps, a more satisfying end?
As theses momentous issues underscore the action, Irene Lewis's tight and well paced direction keeps the production running at a smooth clip. She has an excellent eye for naturalistic and yet aesthetically pleasing moments on stage, arranging the actors around the set as one might arrange a still life. Her direction also appears to have worked in service of the cast's performances. They work as a tight ensemble with a strong sense of individual character.
Butler is extraordinarily compelling as Wiletta. Once she begins singing it's difficult to focus on anything else. She also brings more truth to her final, epic monologue than anything Al's contrived exercises could force.
Thomas Jefferson Byrd gives an equally intricate performance as the "yes-man" Sheldon Forrester and is particularly brilliant in one vividly accurate monologue describing a lynching he'd seen during his childhood. Laurence O'Dwyer as Henry, Starla Benford as Millie Davis and Don Guillory as John Nevins contribute considered and compelling performances.
Ably coordinating technical and artistic elements, this production is that rare example of a socially relevant play that's also satisfying on an aesthetic level. Perhaps it's disappointing that this landmark 1955 work is still so relevant in today's America. Racial prejudice is not nearly as overt but we're still grappling with many of the same issues. But it's also reassuring that the theater is still a place where truth has a right to be heard.
Editor's Note: This play also made a strong impression when it played in DC with the same lead actors. The DC review.
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