Monday, May 16, 2016

A Thoughtful Trouble In Mind

What's old is new again in the new Guthrie offering. 

Photo courtesy of the Guthrie Theater.
They say history repeats itself, but maybe it's simpler than that. Maybe history just never changes that much.

That is a huge takeaway of Trouble In Mind, the latest Guthrie offering at the McGuire stage. Trouble In Mind was written sixty years ago by Alice Childress, a luminous author whose career projected much like Toni Morrison's. Both started in relative anonymity and shot to the top of their respective artistic careers soon after delving into their art, and brought unique, vital perspectives as women of color to a whitewashed genre.

Trouble In Mind follows a cast of African American actors as they work in a mixed race cast on a Broadway play. The play they are performing casts each of them in a stereotypical light, and although they are used to having their parts reduced to simple tropes, something about this production sends them over the edge. Tensions run high as rehearsals continue, until finally Wiletta, a 25 year veteran actor who normally keeps her opinions to herself, delivers a powerful monologue about the shameful ways she and her fellow actors of color have been marginalized.
Photo courtesy of the Guthrie Theater.
Margo Moorer is powerful as Wiletta, bringing a calm, grounded center that makes Wiletta's outburst even more striking. Cleavant Derricks provides an equally vibrant partner to Wiletta as Sheldon Forrester, another seasoned actor. Derricks may appear to be clowning around for most of the show, but he brings the audience to a dead silence while relating Sheldon's experience with lynching.

Marcel Spears is eager as new actor John Nevins and portrays Nevins' struggle with the status quo well. John Catron is wholly despicable as director Al Manners and truly demonstrates the insidious nature behind phrases such as "I'm not racist, but...". Chloe Armao (Judy Sears) shows the struggle facing young, more liberally-minded people as they try to find their place between pushing society forward and staying in their lane. Austene Van is sensuous as the fiery Millie Davis; Nathaniel Fuller fully depicts the stereotypical thespian Henry; and Peter Thomson is completely charming as the old theater hand Bill O'Wray, whose Irish heritage lends him a special ability to empathize with the actors of color.
Photo courtesy of the Guthrie Theater.
It was interesting seeing this show after watching the Book of Mormon, where outdated stereotypes of Africans abounded. The mammy/whore/sharecropper/evil-villain types dismantled in Trouble In Mind aren't that different, and they still abound today (The Help/12 Years A Slave/Training Day, anyone?). It was impossible to watch this without reflecting on the fact that for every Shonda Rhimes Superwoman or Cookie kicking ass on network TV, there are dozens more roles that continue to promote dangerous stereotypes of minorities. It was also striking that the racial characteristics of this play could be interchangeable with just about any minority group and the story would still fully apply; that is more than a shame.
Photo courtesy of the Guthrie Theater.
I'm so thankful for people like Alice Childress, Aziz Ansari, Shonda Rhimes and more who changed or are changing the makeup of our art, be it in plays, movies, television, books or more. As Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie says, "The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story."

Plays like Trouble In Mind are fighting that single story one step at a time. If you're interested in social justice issues, want to know more about why shows like Scandal and Empire are such a big deal still today, are interested in the Civil Rights era or simply want to see a solid period drama, Trouble In Mind is for you. It's a solidly acted, moving play that will have you thinking long after you leave. It runs through June 7 at the Guthrie; click here for more information or to order tickets.