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Review: Darkly funny ‘Trouble in Mind’ a pointed look at the slow progress of race relations

Jake Millgard, left, Ramona Keller, Bibi Mama and Kevin Isola in the Old Globe's "Trouble in Mind."
(Rich Soublet II)

Alice Childress’s 1955 comedy-drama is having a renaissance this theater season, including its first Broadway production

Some plays from the 1950s feel like museum pieces that speak to their time and place. But “Trouble in Mind,” Alice Childress’ 1955 comedy-drama that opened Thursday at the Old Globe, feels just as fresh and maybe even as shocking as it must have been 67 years ago.

Directed by Delicia Turner Sonnenberg with an excellent cast led by Broadway veteran Ramona Keller, “Trouble in Mind” examines the destructive and demoralizing toll that entrenched White supremacy takes on a group of mostly Black actors in New York’s theater industry. At the time, Childress’ play was so incendiary that its White producers canceled a planned Broadway premiere. It finally made its Broadway debut last November.

Turner Sonnenberg first directed “Trouble” at San Diego’s Moxie Theatre seven years ago. In her return to the play this winter, her direction feels much funnier, more poignant and with a sharper edge.

“Trouble in Mind” is the story of Wiletta Mayer, a veteran Broadway actress starring in a new play by a White playwright about the lynching of a Black man in the Deep South. For nearly 30 years, Wiletta has accommodated the not-so-subtle racism, condescension and ignorance of the industry’s White establishment in order to remain employed.

But for her first major role in a non-musical, Wiletta asks the play’s White director for script rewrites to make her character more authentic. Standing up for herself could cost Wiletta her career, and fear for their own livelihoods turns many of Wiletta’s fellow Black castmates against her. The code-switching conversations among the Black characters in “Trouble in Mind” feel very contemporary.

Ramona Keller and Michael Zachary Tunstill in the Old Globe's "Trouble in Mind."
Ramona Keller and Michael Zachary Tunstill in the Old Globe’s “Trouble in Mind.”
(Rich Soublet II)

Keller has a bright, acerbic wit and fierce dignity as Wiletta, and her final scene is transcendent. Her adversary in the play is Al Manners, the self-absorbed and temperamental White play director. Kevin Isola crackles with menace as Manners, but his character is almost too stereotypically evil. Because Manners is so obviously cruel to others in the first act, his racist revelations in act two don’t pack nearly as powerful a surprise punch.

Victor Morris is especially strong as Sheldon, an older Black actor relentlessly willing to humiliate himself to keep his job. Bibi Mama, who graduated last year from the Old Globe-University of San Diego MFA theater program, has a fun, sarcastic edge as Millie, a younger Black actress who like Wiletta is tired of playing clichéd roles as maids and mamas.

Tom Bloom is sweetly endearing as Henry, the theater’s elderly Irish doorman. And San Diego actor Mike Sears is practically unrecognizable as Bill, a nervous-natured White actor who refuses to eat or socialize with his Black castmates. Also featured in the cast are Jake Millgard as the embattled stage manager and Michael Zachary Tunstill and Maggie Walters as newbie actors.

The production features a detailed backstage scenic design by Lawrence E. Moten III, lavish period costumes by Nicole Jescinth Smith, lighting by Sherrice Mojgani and sound by Luqman Brown.

Childress wrote her play about the struggle Black actors like herself faced in the 1950s trying to find honest and empowering roles. That was the same charge leveled by Black theater artists in 2020 when they published an online demand for action known as We See You White American Theatre. The return of “Trouble in Mind” couldn’t be timelier.

‘Trouble in Mind’

When: 7 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays. 8 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays. 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays. 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Through March 13.

Where: Old Globe, 1363 Old Globe Way, Balboa Park, San Diego

Tickets: $29 and up

Phone: (619) 234-5623

Online: theoldglobe.org

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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