Trouble in Mind
Reviewed by Katie Buenneke
Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum
Through September 30
At times, it seems unbelievable that playwright Alice Childress wrote Trouble in Mind in 1955. The show, which features the tried and true dramatic structure of a play-within-a-play, examines racial politics with a razor-sharp wit. Playing in repertory at Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum in Topanga through the end of September, Trouble in Mind follows a cast of actors, most of whom are black, as they rehearse for the Broadway opening of the fictional “Chaos in Belleville,” a drama about sharecroppers that warns of the evils of lynching.
The play mostly centers on Willetta (Earnestine Phillips), an actress who’s navigated a long career by telling white people what they want to hear and refusing to make a fuss. Her natural foil is John (Max Lawrence), an up-and-coming black actor who wants to tell the truth. Willetta convinces John to be what white men want him to be — quiet, submissive, prepared, but not threatening. But as rehearsals for “Chaos in Belleville” progress under white director Al Manners (Mark Lewis), Willetta starts to stand up for what she believes: “Chaos in Belleville” is racist, and unnecessarily evokes images of violence against black men.
Under Ellen Geer’s direction, the cast handles the show’s comedy adeptly, and Childress’s play is brought to life with a self-aware sense of humor — as if to say, “look how little things have changed since the 50s.” The play effectively lets white audiences laugh at — and think that they’re superior to — the racist white characters, but the show’s later moments indicate the complicity of white audiences 60-odd years after the play was written. Unfortunately, the ensemble does not quite rise to the challenge of the second act’s big dramatic moments, which often feel overwrought. Willetta has what should be a tour-de-force monologue late in the show, but while Phillips handles comedy and the play’s smaller moments well, her speech doesn’t reach the rafters of Botanicum’s outdoor amphitheater, and thus doesn’t devastate like it should.
The most affecting moment is delivered by Gerald C. Rivers, who plays Sheldon, a black character actor who’s been in the business about as long as Willetta has. Rivers is consistently funny throughout, but well into the play’s second half, he tells a devastating story about a lynching Sheldon saw as a child. It’s a haunting moment, meant to remind the audience that lynching in the historical sense of the word occurred relatively recently, and that it’s not hard to draw a line from those horrific events to the contemporary instances of police brutality that have made the Black Lives Matter movement so important.
While this production is somewhat uneven, it’s bolstered by Childress’s strong writing. The play’s structure is undeniably old-fashioned, with one set and three distinct scenes that feel like three acts, but the writing is sharp and timeless, and it’s a treat to watch a good story.
Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum, 1419 N. Topanga Canyon Blvd., Topanga; in repertory; through September 30. Theatricum.com/trouble-in-mind. Running time: two hours and 20 minutes with a 10-minute intermission.