TimeLine’s scorching ‘Trouble in Mind’ takes on backstage indignities with wry wit

Going behind the scenes of a 1957 play staging, the cutting drama depicts Broadway theater as a hotbed of stereotypes and microaggressions.

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Actor Wiletta Mayer (Shariba Rivers, left) listens to her director (Tim Decker) as other cast and crew members (Kenneth D. Johnson, Jordan Ashley Grier, Vincent Jordan, Adam Shalzi and Tarina J. Bradshaw) look on in “Trouble in Mind.”

Lara Goetsch

When Broadway actor Wiletta Mayer shows up at the first day of rehearsals for “Chaos in Belleville,” she has to practically bang down the backstage door to gain entry to the theater. Nobody can hear her. Literally. A sweet old stage manager points to his bum ear and shrugs. That’s the least of the indignities — and outright dehumanization — Wiletta endures during the troubled, 1957-set backstage play-within-the-play plot of Alice Childress’ scorching “Trouble in Mind,” which unfolds during rehearsals for “Chaos in Belleville.”

In TimeLine Theatre Company’s can’t-look-away staging, director Ron OJ Parson shapes a production that is both period-perfect and urgently of the moment. The casual (and not-so) racism and abuse heaped on Wiletta (Shariba Rivers) is baked right into the plot of “Chaos,” a play described by pompous, talentless, all-powerful white director Al Manners (Tim Decker) as a progressive “anti-lynching” drama.

The allegedly anti-lynching plot includes a scene where a mother played by Wiletta tearfully surrenders her son to the local police, even though she knows she’s sending him off to be lynched. The scene that becomes a Rubicon in the rehearsal room. Childress’ script works on multiple levels. The dialogue is crisp, agile and snaps with a wry wit. Like Dorothy Parker, the humor comes embedded with barbs aimed at society’s most noxious mores, racism and sexism predominant among them.

‘Trouble in Mind’

Trouble in Mind

When: To Dec. 18

Where: TimeLine Theatre Company, 615 W. Wellington

Tickets: $49-$57; $25 veterans, first responders

Info: TimeLinetheatre.com

As the dialogue-driven piece continues, Childress fleshes out her characters as parallel stories play out: There’s “Chaos in Belleville,” with its preposterous plot and characters. And there is the simmering fuse backstage, slowly reaching its flashpoint. Instances of what we’d call microaggressions today pile up like dry kindling. In dealing with what he calls “explosive” material, Manners bullies the actors into performing their roles as the broadest of stereotypes, a whisker away from minstrelsy. As we watch him push the cast to increasingly exploitative antics, it becomes clear an explosion is in the offing. It’s not the kind Manners is expecting.

“Trouble in Mind” radiates around Rivers’ Wiletta, a leading lady whose star quality is matched by her agile, elegant ability in navigating the endemic racism of a Jim Crow-era workplace. Whether that workplace has truly, substantially changed is the unspoken question at the heart of Parson’s production. Key to that question is Manners’ insistence that he doesn’t see color. “Black, white, green, or purple. I maintain there is only one race. The human race,” he proclaims.

The willful ignorance behind that statement is laid bare when “Chaos” cast member Sheldon Forrester (Kenneth D. Johnson) recalls a lynching he witnesses as a child. It’s a brutal, intensely delivered monologue that’s hard to hear and impossible to ignore. While Manners might insist that he doesn’t see color, the thousands of lynching victims who died in the United States because of their color don’t have that privilege. This is a director ignoring the very history and context of the play he’s attempting to direct. When Wiletta — or anyone — tries to question Manners, he silences them, claiming they’re disrupting his artistic process.

Parson’s ensemble creates a world of relationships and emotions, layering skein upon skein. As Broadway newcomer John Nevins, Vincent Jordan begins rehearsals bright-eyed with optimism and barely contained excitement, growing more cynical as the work progresses. Tarina J. Bradshaw plays Millie Davis, high-glam in full-length fur offstage, sick and tired of always being put in a bandana and a dumpy house dress on stage.

The white actors in the rehearsal room are Judy Sears (Jordan Ashley Grier) and Bill O’Wray (Guy Van Swearingen). She’s the feisty Southern belle of “Chaos in Belleville,” he’s her father. Van Swearingen veers between the role of Southern patriarch and needy actor with disorienting ease: As the former, O’Wray delivers confident, chilling proclamations that wouldn’t be out of place in “Mein Kampf.” O’Wray the actor, by contrast, is a quivering mass of insecurities.

Scenic designer Caitlin McLeod has the cast (which also includes Charles Stransky as Henry, a veteran stage manager, and Adam Shalzi as Eddie Fenton, Manners’ mini-me assistant) on a meticulously detailed backstage. Christine Pascual’s costumes capture the glamor you’d expect within a cast of Broadway stars.

Childress was offered a Broadway production of “Trouble in Mind” in the 1950s, but with the caveat that she tone down the ending. She refused. It didn’t debut on Broadway until 2021. Parson directs it for TimeLine with care and without compromise.

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