Old Globe’s 1955 classic ‘Trouble in Mind’ has new relevance in the post-George Floyd era
The eye-opening Alice Childress play examines racism in the American theater in the 1950s
On Dec. 1, 1955, Rosa Parks refused to move to the back of a city bus in Montgomery, Ala. — an act that lit the fuse for the civil rights era to come. But the match had already been struck a month earlier by another Black woman from the South.
On Nov. 5 of that year, playwright and actress Alice Childress marked the off-Broadway premiere of her play “Trouble in Mind.” It’s the behind-the-scenes story of a veteran Black actress rehearsing a new Broadway play about a lynching in the South. Fed up with the demeaning Black characters in the play, the actress, Wiletta Mayer, goes to battle with the show’s White director to get the White playwright to rewrite the script with more authentic, complex and dignified Black characters.
In a case of life imitating art, Childress never got to see “Trouble in Mind” transfer to Broadway because its White producers wanted her to give the script a happier ending. She refused, and the producers pulled out. By the time Childress died in 1994, the play had slipped into obscurity. But last fall, when Broadway reopened in the post-George Floyd era, “Trouble in Mind” finally made its Broadway debut exactly as Childress wrote it.
San Diego-based stage director Delicia Turner Sonnenberg and veteran New York actress Ramona Keller both got to see that Broadway production before it closed on Jan. 9. Now they’re working to bring the play to the Old Globe this month. Turner Sonnenberg, a Globe resident artist, directed the production and Keller stars as Wiletta.
The Globe production opening Saturday, Feb. 5, is the second time Turner Sonnenberg has directed “Trouble in Mind.” The first was in 2015 at San Diego’s Moxie Theatre, which she co-founded in 2005.
“When I did it at Moxie, it was like a discovery of an old diamond,” Turner Sonnenberg said. “Now in the post-George Floyd era, the pandemic and We See You White American Theatre (a 2020 manifesto that demanded more opportunities for artists of color), the play felt more relevant than ever. A few years ago, this would have felt like a funny and biting period piece, but now that we all have our blinders off, you can’t help but draw the relevance to today.”
Keller, a Brooklyn native with a long career on and off Broadway, said she was struck upon seeing “Trouble in Mind” how not much has changed for Black theater artists in the past 67 years.
“I was sitting there thinking they could have written this yesterday,” Keller said. “It made me think about this author and how bold she was to write that back then. There are some writers now that have stories that nobody will ever hear because they’re not bold enough to tell them.”
Although Wiletta’s outspokenness endangers her career, Keller said playing such a brave and truthful character is uplifting.
“When I got to the end of the play for the first time in rehearsals I felt hopeful and powerful because I stood up for myself. I felt empowered, like something changed in me,” Keller said.
Just as it was in the 1950s, the American theater industry today is still dominated by White leaders who produce mostly White playwrights. But Turner Sonnenberg said she is beginning to see progress, and she hopes the promises of inclusivity she has heard over the past two years are borne out.
“This feels like a time for change. I’m hopeful that there is action rather than just words,” Turner Sonnenberg said. “My favorite quote from Alice Childress was that she said ‘people aren’t ahead of their time, they’re just choked during their time.’ That’s true. This is one of those things I hope we stop doing: choking people in their time because we’re not ready for it.”
‘Trouble in Mind’
When: Previews Saturday, Feb. 5, through Wednesday, Feb. 9. Opens Thursday, Feb. 10, and runs through March 13. Showtimes, 7 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays. 8 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays. 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays. 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays.
Where: Old Globe, 1363 Old Globe Way, Balboa Park, San Diego
Tickets: $29 and up
Phone: (619) 234-5623
COVID protocol: Proof of full vaccination is required or negative test result from a COVID-19 PCR test taken within 72 hours of showtime. Masks are required at all times.
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