“Trouble in Mind” presented by Intiman Summer Festival

Playwright Alice Childress never had one of her works presented on Broadway. Her razor sharp explorations of race in America tell it like it is, and white audiences just weren’t ready for that when this play was written in the 1950s. Lorraine Hansberry’s more gentle “A Raisin in the Sun” was easier to digest, so that did get to Times Square. Intiman thinks we’re far more ready now, and audience reaction on opening night suggests the company was right.


“Trouble…” takes place in a theatre rehearsal hall. A white director is beginning work with his mostly black cast on a cliché ridden, patronizing play that incudes a lynching. It has banal, stereotypic character, and the whole thing is demeaning to the actors. But for them it’s a job, and they must make a decision. Do they soldier on under a director who thinks he’s being liberal by just taking a chance with this monstrous piece of theatre, or do they stand up for their principles and return to the unemployment line?


Director Valerie Curtis-Newton works with a remarkable cast. Tracy Michelle Hughes is an actress with a voice that both caresses and bowls you over. She plays Wiletta, an actress who has had so many roles straight out of “The Help” that she finally makes her stand. Shontina Vernon as the sassy, no-nonsense, sashaying Millie makes it clear you don’t want to mess with her.


G. Valmont Thomas as Sheldon, who’s always willing to play Uncle Tom as long as it gets him a job and helps him keep the job, will bring tears to your eyes as he relates a horror of his youth. And Tim Gouran as the director creates the perfect conflicted liberal, trying so hard, but never quite overcoming the prejudices he grew up with. As you watch this penetrating acting, keep in mind that the entire cast is also playing in at least one of the other plays in this repertory season.


The one problem here is that there’s little in this Intiman production to establish the timeframe. This play is set in 1957. Much has happened to improve race relations since then. Getting good roles in theatre is still harder for blacks than whites. But, unless you know that this is a play from the 1950s, the first act conversations between actors and director seem too loaded with stereotypes, assumptions, and lack of subtlety. Unfortunately the costumes don’t epitomize the ’50s, and, of course, there’s little in a backstage set that would announce the period. Fortunately, the second act soars.


See Intiman Theatre Festival schedule for dates through Sept. 15, 201 Mercer St., Seattle; (info@intiman.org or 206 441-7178)


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