Trouble in Mind at Arena Stage

by Don Michael Mendoza and Joel Markowitz

On a dimly lit stage, tall, red brick walls surround the actors and dusty stage lights hang above their heads. In Alice Childress’ 1955 powerful, angry and humor-filled play, black and white actors, a director, his stagehand and assistant are rehearsing their play that’s bound for ‘The Great White Way.’ Director Al Manners assures his cast that this will be a normal read-through, and a chance to discover themselves and the creative process.

The cast of ‘Trouble in Mind.’ Photo by Richard Anderson.

Feisty Wiletta Mayer is about to explode over being forced to play the stereotypical role of Ruby in a ‘groundbreaking’ Broadway-bound play called Chaos in Bellville, about a young black man in North Carolina, who is about to be lynched. She and her fellow veteran actress Millie Davis, who is playing the role of Petunia, have played so many maids and Mammies named after flowers and jewels in their careers – “from Magnolia to Opal”- that there blood is boiling. And when Wiletta’s character – a mother who is asked to make a life-changing decision regarding her son – all hell breaks loose.

As the rehearsal progresses the characters reveal more about their lives outside of the theatre, and why they continue to work in the theatre. It’s a play-within-a-rehearsal and feelings and prejudices and frustrations heat up and are exposed, all with a touch of humor thrown in. At times it’s hilarious, and at times it’s heart-breaking, and at times it’s uplifting and hopeful.

E. Faye Butler as Wiletta Mayer. Photo by Richard Anderson.

DC area theatregoers are fortunate to have Irene Lewis, who directed Center Stage’s hit production of Trouble in Mind in 2007, making her Arena Stage directorial debut. Catherine Zuber’s costumes from the 2007 production are being worn again in this new production, and several cast members are reprising their roles.

Two-time Helen Hayes Award winner E. Faye Butler – fresh from her spunky performance as Aunt Eller in Arena Stage’s Oklahoma! – plays the good-hearted and fierce veteran actress and entertainer/singer Wiletta Mayer. Broadway veteran Thomas Jefferson Byrd is the soft-spoken-mind-my-own-business actor Sheldon Forrester. Starla Benford plays the tough and equally-frustrated Black actress and diva Millie Davis. Daren Kelly is movie star Bill O’Wray who doesn’t mind working with colored actors but won’t have lunch with them. Garrett Neergarrd is Eddie Fenton, the ever-suffering Stage Manager. Laurence O’Dwyer (who came in as a last-minute replacement in Arena’s production of The Fantasticks and won him a Helen Hayes Award), is Henry – the quiet doorman with a big heart, who has a special liking for jelly donuts. Brandon Dirden is the excited young Black actor John Nevins, who Wiletta mentors and teaches ‘the tricks of the trade.’ Gretchen Hall plays Judy Sears, a young ingénue who ‘understands’ the injustices that blacks are forced to endure in America in the 1950s. Marty Lodge is the manic, loud, frustrated Director Al Manners who forces the cast to endure his Method Acting exercises which ignites the fuel inside his actors’ souls, and T. Anthony Quinn is the hard-working stagehand.

Thomas Jefferson Byrd as Sheldon Forrester. Photo by Richard Anderson.

Director Irene Lewis receives stand-out work from every member of her cast, especially from Butler, O’Dwyer, and Byrd who have learned to ‘play the game,’ keep quiet and do what the Director says. Their performances are filled with warmth, humor, strength and dignity.

DC audiences know E. Faye Butler from her many roles in local musicals, and now with her role of Wiletta Mayer, she has proven once again that she is not only a fabulous singer – but is one hell of a great actress. Her performance is filled with a roller coaster of emotions. The afternoon night I saw the show the audiences laughed with her, cheered her and shouted “Amen Sister! and they wiped away many tears.

O’Dwyer presents the portrait of a weathered, but still youthful, stagehand who comes to the rescue of Wiletta when she becomes downtrodden from endless lectures from her director about her acting, and Byrd quiets the entire audience as he emotionally recounts how he witnessed a friend’s violent death.

Laurence O’Dwyer as Henry. Photo by Richard Anderson.

“Never have limitations on your horizon. Reach for infinity,” is spoken by a determined Wiletta, who will continue to fight and strive for a better life and world. And as the final bows are taken and curtain closes you can’t help but ask yourself, “Have things really changed since 1955?”

Running time: 2 1/2 hours with one 15-minute intermission.

Trouble In Mind plays through October 23rd at Arena Stage in The Kreeger Theatre – 1101 Sixth Street, SW, in Washington, DC.. For tickets call their box office (202) 488-3300, or purchase them online.

Watch E. Faye Butler talk about why she has appeared in three productions of Trouble in Mind.

Watch a preview video of the show.