Ramona Keller and Kevin Isola in "Trouble in Mind." Photo by Rich Soublet II
As I sat in the Old Globe Theatre audience during a performance of Alice Childress’ “Trouble in Mind,” I was reminded of the current Brian Flores story. The African-American fired head coach of the Miami Dolphins is suing the National Football League and three of its teams alleging racial discrimination in the hiring and retaining of Black coaches. In taking a stand for himself and others, Flores could be committing career suicide, at least in terms of head coaching an NFL franchise anytime soon or ever again.
In Childress’ 1955 play-within-a-play, African-American actress Wiletta Mayer defies the director of a white playwright’s “Chaos in Belleville,” the story of which culminates with a Black mother whom Mayer is portraying urging her son on the run from a would-be lynch mob to just give himself up. In so doing, Mayer turns her back on her career in acting, which is all she knows.
Seven decades after “Trouble in Mind” premiered, our racism-wrought society demands courage from those who can speak out for justice and dignity, in whatever arena. Some can. Some can’t. Some won’t. This is what makes the play so urgent today.
The Globe’s production of “Trouble in Mind” is directed by Delicia Turner Sonnenberg, who also directed a staging of the play in 2015 at Moxie Theatre in Rolando where she was founding artistic director. I don’t remember enough of the Moxie production to draw any comparison between it and this one, but I do know that Turner Sonnenberg is one of the most gifted directors in town, and that’s evinced in the performance of this Old Globe ensemble, particularly Ramona Keller as Wiletta Mayer. The gradual building and building to her eventual breaking point is genuine and organic, conveyed as much in her face and how she moves – or doesn’t move -- as in words. When she does speak, her righteousness is never empty oratory.
The play itself, however, is slow in getting started as one by one most of its characters are introduced. It isn’t until a first run-through of a scene from the script that the tension of “Trouble in Mind” begins to simmer. An issue, too, is the character of the director, Al Manners (Kevin Isola), whose last name advertises what he absolutely doesn’t have. He’s condescending, arrogant and bullying to the point that we wonder why anyone would work for or with him, and we wonder too why it takes so long for Wiletta to speak her piece.
A sequence in which Sheldon Forrester (Victor Morris), an elder Black member of the cast, recounts witnessing a lynching is as chilling as you’d expect. Coming when it does in the play, it also serves the purpose of fortifying Wiletta’s objections to the climax of “Chaos in Belleville.”
As Alice Childress once said: “The Black writer explains pain to those who inflict it.” In “Trouble in Mind,” Wiletta Mayer tries to explain that pain to Al Manners, whose response is right out of the Trump era playbook: a tantrum and an abhorrent attempt at victimhood. Just more evidence that 1955 isn’t as long ago as we think.
"Trouble in Mind" runs through March 13 at the Old Globe Theatre in Balboa Park.
David L. Coddon is a Southern California theater critic.