, the scathingly funny and thought-provoking backstage drama about interracial politics by pioneering African American playwright Alice Childress, is currently enjoying a brilliant revival at Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicumin Topanga Canyon.
Thanks to director Ellen Geer’s vision of the groundbreaking 1955 satire in which an integrated theater company in rehearsal for a “progressive” anti-lynching drama marks the first opportunity for gifted African American actress Willetta Mayer (portrayed by multiple NAACP Award-winner Earnestine Phillips, who commands the stage) to play a leading lady on Broadway. This could be her dream come true, but what compromises must she make to succeed?
When Childress wrote the play, she created a microcosm of the theatrical and social circles in which she moved. Reflecting Childress’ real-life experience, Willetta has played stereotypical supporting roles in second-rate shows for years.
Now she has been given an opportunity to rekindle her dreams of stardom and make a name for herself on her own terms. However, she is met with the limits of institutionalized racism when her white director’s attempts at manipulation clash with Willetta’s determination to maintain her integrity. Scenes between Mark Lewis (as Manners, the play-within-a-play’s director) and Phillips are riveting and thought-provoking in how racism can rear its ugly head in the subtlest ways.
Geer has assembled a perfect ensemble of actors to take on the many challenging roles in this production. All have moments of going with the flow as well as learning to speak the truth no matter the consequences. Henry, the older theater doorman who has seen it all and learned to accept his place in order to make a living, is played to perfection by Roderick Jean-Charles.
Handsome Max Lawrence portrays the young, upcoming and outspoken actor John, cast as Willetta’s son, whose “lynching” in the play-within-a-play sets up the final confrontation scene. It’s an interesting and enlightening turn of events when John first learns his place from Willetta when it comes to dealing with the white director, only to have her realize enough is enough and take John’s more outspoken and truthful mindset in the end.
Constance Jewell Lopez portrays Millie, the younger black actress who jokes with Willetta about the roles they are usually offered and what they must do to keep working, while Gerald C. Rivers portrays the older black character actor Sheldon who has seen it all and lived to tell the tale. As he recounts witnessing a real lynching as a young boy, the audience sat riveted to his words along with the actors onstage – a most powerful theatrical moment.
There are two white actors cast in the play-within-a-play: the progressive-thinking Bill O’Wray and his daughter Judy, portrayed by Christopher W. Jones and Judy Durkin. Durkin begins the show as a wide-eyed innocent, most likely cast by Manners in the hope of seduction. But the forward-thinking Judy choses to befriend John, bringing to light the confrontational nature permeating society when seeing a black man in the company of a white woman.
Rounding out the cast as director Manners’ assistant Eddie is Frank Weidner, a young man who longs to speak up but is constantly put in his place by his demanding boss. Weidner’s double-takes let the audience know exactly how wrong he knows things are, yet how necessary he feels it is to stay quiet. It’s a scathing commentary aimed at all who take the easy way out rather than speaking up and telling our truth, something we as a society must learn to do now more than ever. And I especially enjoyed Weidner’s sly modern salute to equality with his choice of a rainbow-colored bow tie to speak his mind without saying a word.
Costume design highlighting the style of the 1950s is by Robert Merkel with sound design by Ian Flanders playing an interesting role with pre-recorded applause often used as a statement in creating falsehood to change the face of truth. And 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 the perfect setting for this play about actors learning to speak their hidden truths without fear. As I watched the play unfold, I could not help but think how much things have changed since the ‘50s, and yet stayed the same in so many ways. I walked away very sad and incredibly angry at the same time, knowing it is time for all of us to speak the truth and change things for everyone.
TROUBLE IN MIND continues to 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., Topanga. For a complete schedule of performances and to purchase tickets, call 310–455-3723 or log onto theatricum.com.