The first show of the Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater’s 2011-2012 season is Alice Childress’ Trouble in Mind. The play, set in a Broadway theater in 1957, this play-within-a-play explores the differing expectations and dynamics of an interracial cast, assembled for the production of an anti-lynching drama, “Chaos in Belleville.”
Arena favorite E. Faye Butler stars as the main character, Wiletta Mayer, a movie actress set to act for the first time on a Broadway stage.
The fashions and jazz of the 50s time period promises to be a treat in Centerstage director Irene Lewis’ production, but this is not some nostalgic trip down memory lane. The play is concerned with blatant injustices of the time including discrimination and inequality in education and employment. And these injustices are not just based on race, but also because on sex, age and handicaps differences.
As a side note, the first Civil Rights Act since Reconstruction was not passed until after Childress wrote this play.
These are serious topics and some have asked: Is it alright to laugh? Yes, for Childress called her play a comedy-drama. Her characters manage to achieve both humor and serious insight in the same breath.
While Trouble in Mind explores the dynamics in a racially charged time, Childress herself was a ground breaker in theater. As the first African-American woman to have her plays professionally produced in New York, she was also the first woman of color to win an Obie Award.
The irony is that the play with its plot revolving around a troubled production, was initially passed over in Broadway because Childress would not bend to the producer’s demands to change the ending to a happy one for all.
There is much that is true about Childress’ career that she put in her play, but there is also much about ourselves as we tackle what troubles are in one’s mind.
The play is bound to start conversations, and that is perhaps the best ending to a play.