Monday, November 8, 2021

Trouble in Mind (Broadway)


1957. Wiletta Mayer (LaChanze) is a veteran theater actress coming into a new production with a mix of enthusiasm to be acting again but a little bit of hesitance due to the nature of the play, which tackles race issues in the south. Completing the cast are: John Nevins (Brandon Micheal Hall), a neophyte who has an idealistically naïve point of view; Millie Davis (Jessica Frances Dukes), a foil to Wiletta whose husband would rather she no longer work onstage; Sheldon Forrester (Chuck Cooper), another veteran who might have significant inputs as far as personal experience with the material is concerned; and Judy Sears (Danielle Campbell), one of only two white members of the cast who needs to immediately prove that she is not out of place even if she obviously is. Tensions begin to rise when their director Al Manners (Michael Zegen) demands certain aspects to be tackled in such a way that is not representative of the community he is trying to have portrayed onstage given his different background.

With the last-minute cancellation of Chicken & Biscuits, I had to depend on Rush Tickets to save the evening, and Trouble in Mind is one of the few still available for the 8 PM timeslot. While I have been looking forward to an all-out comedy for tonight, this substitute did not disappoint, perhaps because it also has comedic elements peppered all throughout its runtime, probably to lend more levity to the rather controversial subject matter. Despite this, the play accomplishes what it has been made to stand up for.

This play is a timely material, what with the ongoing clamor nowadays on the Great White Way for more diversity and inclusion as far as narratives are involved. Sure, we see more and more people of color taking on roles that are traditionally not theirs but in order to overhaul the systemic racism rooted deep in the industry, we also need stories that cater to the experience of that very demographic. Trouble in Mind tackles just that. And the fact that it has been optioned for Broadway since the 50’s but has only come through now is already considered a triumph and a vital first step forward to further this cause.

The play is truly an eye-opener especially for us in the audience who are not well-versed in what is happening behind the scenes. Our motivation for going to Broadway to see a show is mostly for entertainment but for the people involved in the production, from the crew to the cast, this industry is part not just of their livelihood but also of their craft. Their dreams. What Trouble in Mind accomplishes through its play-within-a-play setup is to offer a glimpse of those hardships that people of color have to go through just to be seen onstage, on top of the stereotypes and the treatment they are subjected to and must endure just to make it through and be considered a success story in the theater scene.

I also appreciate how the dissonance between producer and material is displayed. While showbiz, cinema and theater in particular, are open to the interpretation of storylines from everybody, we cannot discount the fact that some stories are better told or construed through the point of view of those who have more to do with the narrative. It is not a secret that Hollywood, for example, has been replete with material about people of color written and directed by a white guy.

Or maybe we don’t even have to look that far and just notice how stories about women onscreen and onstage have been controlled by men for the longest time. Perhaps the biggest takeaway from this is that people should be allowed to tell their own stories. Otherwise, this industry-wide call for representation and diversity will just continue for a while superficially, but never really change the system that has tolerated the exclusionary nature of the biz now for the longest time.

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