'Trouble' Mindful of Race Issues, Dramatic Quality

Photo: Sit-in. Al Manners (Tim Kniffin) and Wiletta Mayer (Margo Hall) are opposite forces in Alice Childress' 'Trouble in Mind.'
David Allen/Courtesy
Sit-in. Al Manners (Tim Kniffin) and Wiletta Mayer (Margo Hall) are opposite forces in Alice Childress' 'Trouble in Mind.'

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I consider it a serious flaw that I cannot watch a live performance without experiencing a hyperawareness of the audience that surrounds me. I call this a flaw not because it indicates any moral inadequacies, but because it can make viewing certain events, even ones I enjoy, slightly uncomfortable.

For instance, gritty drama about the inner city lost much of its power when I looked around and observed a theater made up entirely of Berkeley's finest "limousine liberals" - old white people who can afford to be "cultured." Sometimes such scenes are too much to bear - as part of this upper class white audience, I feel somehow implicated.

So for me, "Trouble in Mind," now running at downtown Berkeley's Aurora Theatre, directed by Robin Stanton, could have been an exercise in self-conscious anxiety. I almost expected it to be when I read that the play, which is set in the aftermath of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, depicts an interracial group of actors staging a play about a lynching. Imagine the awkwardness.

But Alice Childress' 1955 play approaches the subject with a sensitivity and a humor that preempts any such anxieties. There are many uncomfortable moments, but they derive from the story itself - which is absorbing and powerful.

In typical Aurora fashion, the set is sparse - there is not a single change of setting. All the action takes places within an empty theater, as the actors and director rehearse their play.

The only thing to watch is the dynamic between the actors, who are genuinely terrific. This kind of production depends on the audience's ability to notice every facial expression and shift in posture - a view the Aurora, which is small and has seats on three sides, is uniquely suited to provide.

Besides race, the other issue at the forefront of "Trouble in Mind" is theater itself.The actors exchange constant banter as they rehearse, providing a hilarious, if exaggerated, depiction of the staging process. It is during these frequent, seemingly natural digressions that the issue of race is first broached.

The black actors, examining the script, find much to object to, or in some cases laugh at. It takes Sheldon (Rhonnie Washington) a full minute to identify, pronounce and then make fun of the supposed Southern black colloquialism "if'n" with which his character begins many sentences.

While his reaction is comic, Childress makes her point. During her day especially, black roles were essentially fleshed-out stereotypes.

The story rotates with two characters at either end of its axis, director Al Manners (Tim Kniffin) and star Wiletta Mayer (Margo Hall). Everyone else lies somewhere in between, and the play's real strength is that each character is distinctive without falling into caricature.

Wiletta's initial advice to young black actor John Nevins (Jon Joseph Gentry) is essentially, "laugh at all of the white director's jokes," a survival technique she's adopted after many years of working under exclusively white management.

But a growing dissatisfaction with Manners' direction leads her to, like Rosa Parks, cause a disruption.

Over 50 years after its publication, "Trouble in Mind" is a piece of writing that still feels ahead of its time. Childress' script is unbelievably disarming and engaging, as though she sought to relieve my aforementioned anxiety by addressing the irony and self-consciousness of theater directly. That she intended a wide audience is apparent, and that her work is still given such care is evidence of her success.


Explore social issues via a metatheatrical experience with Nick at [email protected]

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