Review: Timeline Theatre Company Gives New Life to Trouble in Mind, a Classic in Our Racist History

I always look forward to Timeline Theatre productions because the company provides the background and history of the play in a lobby display and in the playbill. Ron OJ Parson directs this revival of Trouble in Mind, written in 1955 by Alice Childress. This is an important play in theater history because Childress was the first Black woman to have a non-musical produced off-Broadway. Parson has a deft touch with plays about being Black in America; he directed Relentless in January 2022. That play was about upper-middle-class Blacks in the early 20th century in the midst of racial unrest. Trouble in Mind takes place in America during a mid-century racial crisis in the South.

Trouble in Mind is a play within a play about Black Americans in the theater arts. The play is being directed and produced by a White man who in Childress’ real life wanted to change the ending. He saw the lynching theme as too controversial. Childress refused to change the ending and this work never made it to Broadway. The cast gathers with a veteran performer Wiletta Mayer (Shariba Rivers), who is finally getting her place in the spotlight. Rivers eases into the indignation that her character endures in a spotlight performance. At issue is the persistent “White Gaze” where every Black person is a representative of their race, and has to hold themselves to an impossible standard of being happy and buffoonish for the entertainment and social comfort of White people. Tim Decker plays director Al Manners, who feels that he is being liberal and giving a voice to Black people by virtue of his presence. Decker gives an intense and on-target performance as the manic and manipulative Manners.

L-R: Guy Van Swearingen, Kenneth D. Johnson, Tim Decker, and Shariba Rivers. Photo by Peyton Robinson.

He acts as a pseudo-mentor for young John Nevins (Vincent Jordan) who really believes that he can be whatever he wants in New York. Wiletta schools him on how to play along to get along. He should never be too uppity, always compliment the boss, smile and be happy just to be there. Castmate Millie Davis (Tarina J. Bradshaw) also warns him to never be too friendly with White women as it could get him jailed. Millie is not happy when John offers his arm to Judy Sears (Jordan Ashley Grier). Grier gives a stellar performance of a nervous and chatty young white woman who keeps emphasizing how liberal her folks in Connecticut are and how they say that people should just be people.

Elder statesman Sheldon Forrester (Kenneth D. Johnson) comes from vaudeville where even Black men had to wear blackface and he has possibly been on the Chitlin’ Circuit. Johnson gives a subtle and graceful performance as a man still having to go along to get paid. Sheldon gambles on the numbers and never wins. Johnson has a searing scene as his character recalls witnessing a lynching as a child. The telling of a burned body chained to a wagon and dragged down the road is chilling. That memory ignites a revelation in Wiletta where she fights back and calls Manners out on his own inherent racism.

L-R: Tim Decker, Kenneth D. Johnson, Shariba Rivers, and Jordan Ashley Grier. Photo by Liz Lauren.

That was a particularly brilliant and volcanic dialogue between Al and Wiletta, where she turns the tables on him. She uses his technique of berating the actors to not think. They should feel what he interprets as the real emotion of the character. How would he know what it was like to send his own son off to be lynched? She forces him to admit that his son would never be in that position because he is a privileged White kid. This is the crux of how WIletta does an about-face on going along to get along. It’s not out of the blue. Childress wrote Wiletta as a character who wants to be an actor, not just an entertainer.

Adam Shalzi is the perfect nerd character—the ever-beleaguered gofer to Al Manners, who berates him regularly. Guy Van Swearingen is tragicomic perfection as soap opera actor Bill O’Wray, in constant need of reassurance that he hasn’t offended anyone. I remember Van Swearingen as the melancholy and expressive Dog in The Moors at A Red Orchid. Charles Strasky rounds out the superb cast as Henry, the affable stagehand. Some of the best moments are Henry telling tales of Ireland and fighting for the Home Rule Movement. There is a feeling of connection between the characters that in lesser hands would not come through. Parson and his cast create a synthesis that puts the audience backstage in the thick of the conflict.

The overarching theme of Trouble in Mind is integrity and demanding better representation in theater. Wiletta’s realization of how she has betrayed her dream of being a real actor as she refuses to play her role as a stooped-over and long-suffering Black mother; enrages not only Manners but the rest of the cast. They want to work in anything to pay the rent and keep themselves relevant as a commodity. They are willing to engage in blatant coonery, which lowers them to playing lazy and bug-eyed stereotypes.

Manners demands that her character would send her son off willingly to sure death by lynching but he wants to soften the fate of the young man. Manners, like the real-life producers, wanted to smooth over the idea of lynching as it was still being done in America. The American social order was climbing to a boiling point in places like Birmingham, where Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat and started the boycott that ignited the Civil Rights Movement.

L-R Adam Shalzi, Tim Decker, and Tarina J. Bradshaw. Photo by Liz Lauren.

I was unaware that Childress had revised her play in 1957 to include the increasing racial terror visited upon Blacks. Mamie Till’s decision to allow Johnson Publishing to allow photos of her murdered son Emmett is considered by some to be the igniting volley for civil rights. I have been educated on the revision, and the actors mentioning horrific events compound the anger and give depth to why Wiletta has more steel in her spine. America was still under the post-war illusions of winning and the Eisenhower era promoted a White ideal. Black actors and others of color were consigned to denigrating roles. The HUAC hearings of the 1950s had ended shortly before the original version and anyone who stepped out of the American ideal (preferably Republican) was set upon by McCarthy and the scabrous Roy Cohn. Paul Robeson was victimized by them and lost work and his passport was revoked. It is interesting that Al Manners mentions HUAC in a condescending way. That makes me ask whether he might have named names. Did he go along to get along?

That question is as relevant today as it was in 1955. How much does a person endure before they stand up to whatever injustice or debasement they are feeling? I would say that Childress was prescient with Trouble in Mind. The same issues cast a wider swath in the present day as American norms and culture shift again. Be sure to get to the theater early to enjoy the gallery of Black history in American theater and to hear some music from that mid-century era. Recordings of Dinah Washington, Etta James, Billie Holiday, and Nina Simone set the mood in their own inimitable way.

Big props to the costume design and wardrobe department for authenticity; this was an era when people still dressed well. Costume designer Christine Pascual, working with costume supervisor Lucy Elkin and Johan Gallardo, associate costume designer, get the credit. The beautiful tailoring and fit of that era are something I remember from my mother and uncles. Hats, gloves, and proper hosiery were the standard and the looks are timeless. Scenic designer Caitlin McLeod and assistant scenic designer Aria Morris create such an authentic set that I can smell the grease paint. Photos of Old Hollywood decorate the walls. Photos of Old Black Hollywood decorate the gallery/lobby.

I recommend Trouble in Mind and certainly acknowledge the importance of Childress’ work in promoting and writing for Black stories being told by Black people. She paved the way for Black women to take control of their careers. Shonda Rhimes, Ava Duvernay, Regina King, and others stand on her shoulders as writers and producers of authentic and powerful work.

Trouble in Mind plays through December 18 at Timeline Theatre, 615 W. Wellington Ave. For prices, tickets, and more information, please visit the Timeline website.

Kathy D. Hey
Kathy D. Hey

Kathy D. Hey writes creative non-fiction essays. A lifelong Chicagoan, she is enjoying life with her husband, daughter and three dogs in the wilds of Edgewater. When she isn’t at her computer, she is in her garden growing vegetables and herbs for kitchen witchery.