Clarence Brown Theatre’s “Trouble in Mind,” Well Done and Challenging

Shinnerrie Jackson as Wiletta Mayer in the CBT’s Trouble in Mind. Photo: Ella Marston
Shinnerrie Jackson as Wiletta Mayer in the CBT’s Trouble in Mind. Photo: Ella Marston

Trouble in Mind is a play within a play. Originally a contemporary play featuring portrayals of a mostly black cast in the 1950s, the time of the setting remains and has become historical itself. The content of the play within the play is that of a lynching earlier in the century. The fact that the setting is the 1950s and the characters the actors are rehearsing are set in the early 1900s does not preclude the content from being fresh and raw in 2023. If anything, the themes seem more designed for exploration now than ever before.

Written by black playwright Alice Childress, the play debuted off Broadway in 1955, and ran for 91 performances. Set to make its entry onto Broadway in 1957, Alice Childress was pressured to soften its content. She refused and the play was not produced, denying her the opportunity to become the first black woman to have a play produced on Broadway. After sporadic productions elsewhere, it made its Broadway debut in 2021, ran for 58 performances and was nominated for four Tony awards.

The play is directed by Marti Gobel and she makes the most of a single set and small ensemble. Much of the play involves the “directing” of the internal play by white director Al Manners (Joshua Peterson) who strives to make a play written by a white playwright and directed by a white man, featuring a mostly black cast, into a sympathetic production for white audiences. Feeling himself a staunch ally to the actors, he struggles to do the impossible as he navigates his own cultural background in attempting to have his actors be “authentic” in a way he cannot truly understand.

Michael Najman, Joshua Peterson, Shinnerrie Jackson and Rico Bruce Wade in the CBT’s Trouble in Mind. Photo Ella Marston

The primary tension of the play centers around lead actress Shinnerrie Jackson (Wiletta Mayer), who desperately wants this career culminating moment starring on Broadway. After a career of being cast in demeaning and stereotypical roles, she’s being asked to so one more time, with the reward being achieving her life’s dream. Her struggle embodies the larger struggle of African American actors and its successful resolution isn’t assured.

The play is more than a simple drama, with large helpings of humor largely provided along the way by Tom Parkhill as Henry, and Rico Bruce Wade as Sheldon Forrester. Rounding out the cast are Will Dorsey IV (John Nevins); Amberlin McCormick (Millie Davis); Rachel Darden (Judy Sears); Michael Najman (Eddie Fenton); and Terry Weber (Bill O’Wray).

I was able to attend the opening night performance on Friday night and found the play to be riveting from beginning to end. While the play runs over two hours and includes an intermission, it seemed it could have been performed straight through without interruption.

Cast of CBT’s Trouble in Mind. Photo: Ella Marston

While Ms. Jackson in the starring role delivers an excellent performance, displaying a range from comfortable banter with friends, to the outrageous character she’s portraying in the internal play and, finally, to a wrenching exploration of the character’s struggle, she was not alone in bringing spot-on performances. The entire cast brought their characters to life and both Ms. Jackson’s vocals as well as that of the others who joined her in song made me want more.

For a more thorough and incisive review, please read Alan Sherrod’s review at Arts Knoxville. The play runs through February 26, and I’d strongly encourage you to attend. You’ll find tickets here.