By Pam Kragen
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.
Ramona Keller has a bright, acerbic wit and fierce dignity as Wiletta, and her final scene is transcendent. Kevin Isola crackles with menace as Manners. Victor Morris is especially strong as Sheldon, an older Black actor relentlessly willing to humiliate himself to keep his job. Bibi Mama has a fun, sarcastic edge as Millie. Tom Bloom is sweetly endearing as Henry.
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.
By Pat Launer
This is a thrilling production of a moving, infuriating, gasp-inducing work of theater that exposes the hypocrisy, bigotry, white privilege, humiliation, subjugation, suppressed anger and bowing/scraping compromises that Black performers have had to endure in white-dominated theater for ages.
John is being schooled by theater veteran Wiletta Mayer (marvelous, musical, riveting Ramona Keller) in exactly how to kowtow to the white folks.
We almost feel a scintilla of sympathy for the white director (forceful Kevin Isola), when he relates his own trials and hardships in the business. But then, in one stunningly racist comment, he gives himself away.
And that’s when the leading lady, Wiletta, snaps. She’s mad as hell and she’s not gonna take it anymore. Like the playwright who created her, this strong-willed woman will no longer settle for a less than honest representation of Black people in theater.
How this all plays out is up for interpretation at the end. And that’s just the way Childress wants it.
It’s an unsettling experience but it shouldn’t be missed.
By Charles McNulty
This skillfully written work was worth the Saturday traffic. The production, directed by Delicia Turner Sonnenberg, honors the way Childress balances comedy and drama, argument and story, politics and psychology.
This breadth of detail is captured in Turner Sonnenberg’s production with an admirable modesty that always puts the play first. This is a true ensemble effort. It was only toward the end that I began to fully appreciate the high caliber of the performances, most especially Morris’ sneakily subversive Sheldon, Isola’s arrogant Mr. Manners and, of course, Keller’s splendidly simmering Wiletta, who is compelled to say what no one in charge is ready to hear.
On the long drive home, I contemplated Childress’ drama with both gratitude and sorrow. My admiration for the excellence of the writing was tinged with mournfulness for a writer who deserved better in her lifetime.
How is it that I’d never, until 2022, seen an Alice Childress play in performance? Well, we know how. “Trouble in Mind” answers that question too.
By David L. Coddon
The Globe’s production of “Trouble in Mind” is directed by Delicia Turner Sonnenberg, who also directed a staging of the play in 2015 at Moxie Theatre in Rolando where she was founding artistic director. I don’t remember enough of the Moxie production to draw any comparison between it and this one, but I do know that Turner Sonnenberg is one of the most gifted directors in town, and that’s evinced in the performance of this Old Globe ensemble, particularly Ramona Keller as Wiletta Mayer. The gradual building and building to her eventual breaking point is genuine and organic, conveyed as much in her face and how she moves – or doesn’t move — as in words. When she does speak, her righteousness is never empty oratory.
The play itself, however, is slow in getting started as one by one most of its characters are introduced. It isn’t until a first run-through of a scene from the script that the tension of “Trouble in Mind” begins to simmer. An issue, too, is the character of the director, Al Manners (Kevin Isola), whose last name advertises what he absolutely doesn’t have. He’s condescending, arrogant and bullying to the point that we wonder why anyone would work for or with him, and we wonder too why it takes so long for Wiletta to speak her piece.
By A.L. Haynes
The Old Globe’s production of Trouble In Mind does an amazing job capturing the subtleties Childress built into her work.
Trouble In Mind focuses on veteran Black actress, Wiletta Mayer (played by Ramona Keller). A supposedly anti-lynching play, coupled with an integrated cast and crew and an arrogantly eccentric director, cause her to confront both her own behaviors and those of the people around her in terms of race and respect. Special notice should be taken that The Globe’s production looks at not only racial, but gender inequalities, with Judy (played by Maggie Walters) finding more in common with the Black members of the production due to continual denigration.
Keller turns in a superlative performance as Wiletta, almost telling the audience more when she is not speaking. The interactions with the doorman, Henry (played by Tom Bloom), are particularly well done. Henry is a reference to an era when Irish Americans were considered “negroes” alongside Black Americans.
More than a simple comedy, Trouble In Mind is a rich layering of tropes and truths designed to reach different audiences on different levels. Well-cast and thoughtfully directed, The Old Globe’s production of Trouble In Mind is a slice-of-life and history that is well worth seeing.