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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, August,2 2013 - Volume 41 Issue 31
Inconvenient truths - Trouble in Mind exposes the shortcomings of white liberalism
Arts & Entertainment
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Inconvenient truths - Trouble in Mind exposes the shortcomings of white liberalism

by Miryam Gordon - SGN A&E Writer

TROUBLE IN MIND
INTIMAN THEATRE
Through September 15


Out of the four productions of Intiman's 2013 summer festival, Alice Childress' Trouble in Mind is by far the most important and well-done. Directed by the talented and passionate Valerie Curtis-Newton, who brought it to Intiman's attention, this taut yet ironically funny play speaks directly to the topic of race - a conversation that ought to be engaged in today.

Childress wrote contemporaneously, setting the play in the mid-1950s, and yet many of the trenchant observations are still timely, despite our fondness for thinking we're in a post-racial culture. She notes, in a play-within-a-play setting, that African Americans still have to be careful of what they say to Caucasians in power over them. She shows the lack of communication between races, even as everyone speaks English. Yet each character's motivations and interests are made clear as well.

We meet Wiletta (Tracy Michelle Hughes), Millie (Shontina Vernon), Sheldon (G. Valmont Thomas), and John (Andrew Lee Creech) - African-American actors who begin to rehearse a new play for Broadway. Wiletta, Millie, and Sheldon chime in to give John sometimes-conflicting advice about how to talk to the white directors and producers in order to get along and give them what they want. Some of the advice is funny; a lot is an uncomfortable reminder of what those in less powerful positions must often do.

The play they rehearse is supposed to break ground by addressing the crime of lynching, but we learn that the Caucasian writer has barely shifted the perspectives of the stereotyped Black characters from years of maids, servants, mammies, and uneducated Lawd-have-mercy portrayals. Yet to push for real change could get the actors fired from jobs they all need and crave.

The white characters - director Al (Tim Gouran), always addressed as 'Mr. Manners'; young, liberal actress Judy (Skylar Tatro); veteran actor Bill (Mark Anders); and stage manager Eddie (Adam Standley) - display various attitudes of the time toward the Black cast members. Judy earnestly attempts to show her colorblind attitude, while Bill doesn't care to engage much at all. Only the Irish custodian, Henry (Burton Curtis), seems able to connect on a simple, human level.

BLINDED TO PRIVILEGE
Al, the main character who ignores Wiletta's pleas to rewrite sections of the script, thinks he is doing something important on Broadway, moving the conversation on race, yet is blind to the contradictions in the script. Even so, he portrays an understanding of the corporate powers that control him, and perhaps a more realistic measure of what a white Broadway audience of that time was willing to accept and pay for. But his treatment of Wiletta is an ultimate condescension to her, both as an African American and a woman.

Hughes is transcendent in a role that she seems born to play. Supported by a committed cast, she's funny, fierce, tormented, and heartbroken. Thomas also stands out as the guy willing to mime whittling wood for no reason when told to, yet finding the courage to tell a story of witnessing a lynching as a child.

Brought alive on a set of an old-timey theater stage by Jennifer Zeyl (who does yeoman work on a versatile design allowing for four different sets on one stage for the summer), wonderful costumes by Melanie Taylor Burgess that reflect the time period perfectly, and sound and lighting support from Matt Starritt and Andrew D. Smith, the production looks and sounds wonderful as well. Directed impeccably by Curtis-Newton, the energy leaps off the stage and engages the audience.

This production could be fantastic for older tweens and teenagers, and it is an important contribution to the Seattle theater community. Hopefully, more of Childress' works will be produced here and elsewhere. For more information, go to www.intiman.org or call (206) 441-7178.

Discuss your opinions with sgncritic@gmail.com or go to www.facebook.com/SeattleTheaterWriters.

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