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Provocative ‘Trouble in Mind’ by Alice Childress
gets timely revival at Theatricum Botanicum
TOPANGA, Calif (July 5, 2017) –– Trouble in Mind, the scathingly funny backstage drama about interracial politics by pioneering African American playwright Alice Childress, will get a revival at Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum beginning July 29.
Ellen Geer directs Childress’ groundbreaking 1955 satire, which follows an integrated theater company in rehearsal for a “progressive” anti-lynching drama. The play-within-a-play, entitled Chaos in Belleville, marks the first opportunity for gifted African American actress Wiletta Mayer (portrayed by multiple NAACP Award-winner Earnestine Phillips) to play a leading lady on Broadway. But what compromises must she make to succeed?
According to Phillips, “The play they are rehearsing is supposedly about black life. But it’s written by a white playwright and it’s produced and directed by two white guys. So you have this situation where white liberals think they know the truth of black life. The black actors need jobs, so they have to decide if they should keep their heads down and continue to work, or speak out to let the writer and director know that their ‘enlightened’ play is misguided and racist.”
When Childress wrote the play, she created a microcosm of the theatrical and social circles in which she, herself, moved. Reflecting Childress’ real-life experience, Wiletta has played stereotypical supporting roles in second-rate shows for years. Now, she resolves to rekindle her dreams of stardom and make a name for herself on her own terms, but is met with the very real limits of institutionalized racism. Her director’s attempts at manipulation clash with Wiletta’s determination to maintain her integrity.
Ironically, Childress was forced to confront nearly the same choice with Trouble in Mind that she dramatized in the play. Following the tremendous success Trouble enjoyed off-Broadway, a commercial run was announced — but only if Childress would write a happier, less-ambivalent ending. Like Wiletta, Childress had to decide: soften her message, follow the formula and sell out for success, or maintain her integrity and risk everything. By standing her ground and not making the requested changes, she sacrificed the opportunity to become the first African-American female playwright produced on Broadway. A Raisin in the Sun would later garner that distinction for Lorraine Hansberry in 1959.
The foreword to the version Childress chose for publication explains that “Trouble is clearly set in the context of the social upheavals of the fifties. Interestingly, some of the references were added after the original production (the Little Rock riots didn’t occur until 1957), suggesting how future events would expand the play rather than render it obsolete.”
In addition to Phillips, the Theatricum production stars Judy Durkin, Rodrick Jean-Charles, Christopher W. Jones, Max Lawrence, Mark Lewis, Constance Jewell Lopez, Gerald C. Rivers and Frank Weidner. Costume design is by Robert Merkel; lighting design is by Zach Moore; sound design is by Ian Flanders; and props are by Sydney Russell. The production stage manager is Kim Cameron.
A playwright, novelist, actor and screenwriter, Alice Childress was born in Charleston, South Carolina. Her parents separated in 1925 and Childress moved to the Harlem, N.Y. home of her grandmother, Eliza Campbell White, who encouraged her to write and exposed her to the arts. Leaving high school after only two years, Childress worked low-paying jobs while becoming involved in the Harlem theater scene. In 1941, she joined Harlem’s American Negro Theatre (ANT) where she worked as an actress, stage director, personnel director and costume designer for 11 years. A respected performer, Childress appeared in a variety of New York productions including Natural Man (1941); Rain (1948); The Emperor’s Clothes (1953); and Anna Lucasta (1944), which transferred to Broadway and earned Childress a Tony Award nomination. In 1949, she wrote Florence, the first of over a dozen plays to her credit. This early play reflects many themes that would characterize Childress’ later writings, including black female empowerment, interracial politics, working-class life and attacks on black stereotypes. In 1952, her play Gold Through the Trees became the first play written by an African-American woman to be professionally produced in New York. In 1973, she launched a career as a young adult novelist with “A Hero Ain’t Nothin’ but a Sandwich.” The novel confronts difficult social issues such as racism, drug use, teen pregnancy and homosexuality. She adapted it into a screenplay in 1978. Childress wrote three other novels and a collection of short stories. Occasionally her writings on black culture and interracial relations caused controversy. Some networks refused to televise a 1969 production of Wine in the Wilderness as well as the Public Theater’s 1973 production of Wedding Band: A Love/Hate Story in Black and White. Some school districts and libraries banned “A Hero Ain’t Nothin’ but a Sandwich” when it was released.
With its one-of-a-kind outdoor setting in the heart of Topanga Canyon and its roots in the 1950s McCarthy-era Hollywood blacklist — when actors Will Geer and his wife, Herta Ware, created the theater as a haven for blacklisted actors — Theatricum is best known for its productions that frame contemporary social issues through the lens of classic literature.
Theatricum has been an oasis for theatergoers for over 40 years, presenting Shakespeare and the classics in repertory in its scenic, outdoor amphitheater in rustic Topanga Canyon. Unlike most theaters in the Los Angeles area which stage continuous runs of a single play, the Theatricum, using a company of actors, performs five plays each season on a rotating basis. By the end of the summer, when all five plays are up and running, it is possible to see a performance of each in a single weekend. Theatricum Botanicum is a recipient of the prestigious Margaret Harford Award, the Los Angeles Drama Critics Circles highest honor for sustained excellence.
Theatricum Botanicum has been named “One of the 50 Coolest Places in Los Angeles” by Buzz magazine, “One of Southern California’s most beguiling theater experiences” by Sunset magazine, and “Best Theater in the Woods” by the LA Weekly. “The enchantment of a midsummer night at Theatricum Botanicum [makes it] crystal clear why audiences have been driving up into the hills since Theatricum’s maiden season way back in 1973. Summer Shakespeare doesn’t get any better than this,” writes StageSceneLA. Says Los Angeles magazine, “The amphitheater feels like a Lilliputian Hollywood Bowl, with pre-show picnics and puffy seat cushions, yet we were close enough to see the stitching on the performers costumes. Grab a blanket and a bottle and head for the hills.”
Trouble in Mind opens on Saturday, July 29 at 7:30 p.m. and continues through Sept. 30, running in repertory with The Merchant of Venice, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Animal Farm and Other Desert Cities as part of Theatricum’s 2017 “Rising Up” summer season. Tickets range from $15-$38.50.
Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum is located at 1419 North Topanga Canyon Blvd. in Topanga, midway between Malibu and the San Fernando Valley. For a complete schedule of performances and to purchase tickets, call 310–455-3723 or log onto www.theatricum.com. Visit Theatricum on facebook: www.facebook.com/theatricum. Follow us on twitter: @theatricum.
Details for Calendar Listings’
‘Trouble in Mind’
Trouble in Mind — This scathingly funny backstage drama about interracial politics by pioneering African American playwright Alice Childress follows an integrated theater company in rehearsal for a “progressive” anti-lynching drama. The play-within-a-play, entitled Chaos in Belleville, marks the first opportunity for gifted African American actress Wiletta Mayer to play a leading lady on Broadway. But what compromises must she make to succeed?
• Written by Alice Childress
• Directed by Ellen Geer
• Starring Judy Durkin, Rodrick Jean-Charles, Christopher W. Jones, Max Lawrence, Mark Lewis, Constance Jewell Lopez, Earnestine Phillips, Gerald C. Rivers, Frank Weidner
• Presented by Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum
Performances: July 29–Sept. 30:
• Saturday, July 29 at 7:30 p.m.
• Sunday, July 30 at 7:30 p.m.
• Saturday, Aug. 5 at 7:30 p.m.
• Friday, Aug. 11 at 7:30 p.m.
• Sunday, Aug. 13 at 3:30 p.m.
• Sunday, Aug. 20 at 3:30 p.m.
• Sunday, Aug. 27 at 7:30 p.m.
• Sunday, Sept. 3 at 3:30 p.m.*
• Saturday, Sept. 9 at 7:30 p.m.
• Saturday, Sept. 16 at 3:30 p.m.
• Sunday, Sept. 24 at 3:30 p.m.
• Saturday, Sept. 30 at 3:30 p.m.
*Prologue (pre-show discussion):Sunday, Sept. 3 at 2:30 pm.(included in ticket price)
Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum
1419 N. Topanga Canyon Blvd.
Topanga CA 90290
(midway between Pacific Coast Highway and the Ventura Freeway)
• General admission: $38.50 (lower tier); $25 (upper tier)
• Seniors (65+), Students, Military Veterans, Teachers, AEA Members: $25/$15
• Buffet dinner/play combo: call theater for pricing, advance reservations required
The outdoor amphitheater at Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum is terraced into the hillside of the rustic canyon. Audience members are advised to dress casually (warmly for evenings) and bring cushions for bench seating. Patrons are welcome to arrive early and picnic before a performance.