- The Washington Times - Friday, February 9, 2007

Costume designer Catherine Zuber’s fitted suits, decorous little hats and stiff pocketbooks fairly scream the respectable 1950s, but the white gloves quickly come off in “Trouble in Mind,” a blisteringly funny discourse on race and showbiz false faces and a neglected gem from Harlem playwright Alice Childress that’s being staged with gleaming umbrage at CenterStage under the direction of Irene Lewis.

Miss Childress, who died in 1994 at age 77, may be most famous for her young adult novels “A Hero Ain’t Nothin’ But a Sandwich,” “Rainbow Jordan,” and “A Short Walk,” but she was also a founding member of the American Negro Theatre, where her colleagues included Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte.

Written in 1955, “Trouble in Mind” was based on Miss Childress’ experience as an actor relegated to playing maids and mammies. It was to be the first play produced on Broadway written by a black woman, but the producers wanted her to make “Trouble in Mind” more white bread, which she refused to do. Four years later, the groundbreaking distinction went to “A Raisin in the Sun” by Lorraine Hansberry.

You can see why middle-of-the-road producers may have balked at Miss Childress’ mix of righteous anger and rollicking humor cloaked in that most delectable of genres, the backstage comedy. Her frankness about prejudice and condescending attitudes toward females is anything but ladylike in an era marked by women knowing their place.

“Trouble in Mind” pulls back the curtain to reveal the behind-the-scenes sniping and subterfuge during rehearsals for “Chaos in Bellville,” an anti-lynching play. Showbiz veteran Wiletta Mayer (E. Faye Butler) is finally starring in the lead after decades of musical revues and servant roles.

In the beginning, Wiletta is her usual placating self, advising newcomer John Nevins (LeRoy McClain) to laugh at everything the white director, Al Manners (Craig Wroe), says and to pretend his most recent experience was playing one of the children in a revival of “Porgy and Bess.”

Manners institutes some rather hideous Method Acting exercises, which are supposed to make everything “more real.” What it does, though, is make Wiletta realize she’s just another maid singing hymns, ironing and crying out “Lawd have mercy,” and she just can’t take it anymore. Trying to be truthful and maintain some dignity, she instead ignites a torrent of ugliness revealing what a sham self-congratulatory attitudes about racial tolerance are in America.

Miss Butler, known primarily for her musical theater roles, pulls out all the stops to play Wiletta, and her ferocious, indomitable performance turns what could have been rampant didacticism into indelible moments.

Her heat is beautifully tempered by Thomas Jefferson Byrd’s subtle and canny portrayal of an actor who plays the cliche to get by in a white-dominated world. The scene where the director asks him to sit on a wooden box and whittle as his son is dragged off to jail is priceless comedy, while he induces chills recounting a lynching incident from childhood. As Millie Davis, Starla Benford also heartbreakingly delineates the divide between her compromised public persona and the woman she truly is.

Ironically, the only stereotypes in the play are Caucasians: the braying racist actor (Daren Kelly), the bleeding heart Yankee ingenue (Maria Dizzia), and the director — who’s such a petulant, unctuous villain he might as well be twirling his moustache.

However, in 2007, “Trouble in Mind” is not a blast from the past but a breath of fresh air. Racial stereotypes persist, and who’s to say contemporary images of blacks as baby mamas, welfare queens, pimps and gangstas are any less demeaning and constricting than Uncle Tom and Aunt Jemima. What shocks you about the play is not the language or the ethnic slurs, but the realization that many directors and media manipulators today are still asking actors to “be more black” — as if there’s only one way of feeling and behaving.

****

WHAT: “Trouble in Mind” by Alice Childress

WHERE: CenterStage, 700 N. Calvert St., Baltimore

WHEN: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, 7:30 p.m. Sundays. Through March 4.

TICKETS: $10 to $60

PHONE: 410/332-0033

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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