Timeless themes in ‘Trouble in Mind’

“Trouble in Mind” needs a strong, eloquent woman at the center of its cast, and the new Aurora Theatre production of Alice Childress’ play has one.

Margo Hall, one of the Bay Area’s finest theater artists, gives a riveting performance as Wiletta Mayer, the black actress who spends her career portraying one stereotypical role after another before realizing she just can’t take it anymore.

Hall’s performance is the main reason to see the show, directed by Robin Stanton as the inaugural production of Aurora’s 19th season. 

But, it’s by no means the only reason.

If you’re not familiar with Childress, you’re not alone. Although the South Carolina-born, Harlem, N.Y.-based author wrote numerous plays and novels, she’s relatively unknown today.

And “Trouble in Mind,” written in the 1950s, makes you wonder why she’s been so overlooked.

Stanton’s production is set backstage in a theater during the first rehearsal of a Broadway play. The year is 1957, and Hall’s Wiletta has a pivotal role as the Southern mother of a young man murdered by a lynch mob.

Wiletta has had years of experience playing maids and mammies (there’s a hilarious bit in the first act about characters named for flowers and jewels), and Hall makes her weariness readily apparent. 

But the role offers Wiletta her first chance to appear on Broadway, and she’s determined to make it happen. As ambition collides with her distaste for gender typecasting, Wiletta — goaded by an arrogant director demanding “truth” and “motivation” — quickly reaches the boiling point.

Childress’ play touches on a number of issues of the era, including the popularity of method acting, the McCarthy witch hunts that had many artists fearful of losing their jobs and a new disdain for intellectualism in theater (“I hate the kind of play that bangs you over the head with a message,” one character says).

Stanton and her design team — Eric Sinkkonen (sets), Kurt Landisman (lighting) and Callie Floor (costumes) — give the staging an authentic 1950s look.

But, with its principal themes of racism and gender inequality, “Trouble in Mind” could have been written yesterday. 

Wiletta, perhaps a stand-in for Childress herself, is a sharply drawn character. The supporting cast — Elizabeth Carter (Millie), Tim Kniffin (Al), Rhonnie Washington (Sheldon), Jon Joseph Gentry (John), Patrick Russell (Eddie), Earll Kingston (Henry) and Melissa Quine (Judy) — all give assured performances.

But this is Hall’s show.

In her fierce, forceful performance, Childress’ play finally gets its due.

THEATER REVIEW

Trouble in Mind

Where: Aurora Theatre, 2081 Addison St., Berkeley

When: 7 p.m. Tuesdays, 8 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays; closes Sept. 26

Tickets: $10 to $45

Contact: (510) 843-4822, www.auroratheatre.org

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