Brenda Pressley takes center stage as Willetta, a 1950’s African American actress at work on a play-within-a-play, as TROUBLE IN MIND continues through the weekend at Two River Theater. (Photo by T. Charles Erickson)
You don’t need much if any direct experience with the Business of Show to reckon that the process of putting something on the stage — the tectonic shift of strong egos, the conflicts and the compromises, the whole backstage pageant — can often be way more compelling than the show itself.
It’s a concept that was grasped beautifully by the late Alice Childress in Trouble in Mind, the comedy-drama that opened last week at Red Bank’s Two River Theater and continues through the weekend (including a 3 p.m. matinee Easter Sunday) in a dynamite production directed by Jade King Carroll.
Originally staged in 1955 and largely overlooked across the decades, Childress’s Obie winning play is a snapshot of a Fifties-vintage acting company at work, offering a mix of age, gender and race that gets shaken up when the black leading actress confronts her white director over her issues with their project, an idealistic but oh-so-misguided drama about a Southern lynching.
Peopled by stooped sharecropper stereotypes, set amid watermelons and baskets of cotton, the play-within-a-play, titled Chaos in Belleville, is fifty shades of wrong — but Trouble in Mind is a find. It’s a frankly funny, pointed portrait from a fast-moving and volatile interlude in American social history (the script’s references to the Montgomery bus boycott and the entertainment industry blacklists were ripped from the headlines when this was written).
The ensemble cast — headed by Brenda Pressley and Steven Skybell, a pair of TRTC returnees who really step up to their star-quality opportunities here — is bolstered by Roger Robinson, a Tony winner for Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, in a vivid turn as a gravelly, grumbling, go-along-to-get-along old African-American actor with a sobering backstory. Amirah Vann, as a feisty fashion plate trapped in another drab “Petunia” role, and Brian Russell, as a clueless character man “without a prejudiced bone in my body,” make a similarly big impression. The company also features stage-screen veteran Robert Hogan (interviewed here on redbankgreen when he starred in Two River’s On Borrowed Time) as an elderly Irish doorman with a sympathetic if slightly deaf ear, and a story to tell in his own right.
All these people, young and old, black and white, are forced to take an uncomfortable look at their principles, their preconceptions — and the pragmatic need to keep their jobs — by a fascinating scenario that’s accessible, entertaining, and (for theater folk) irresistible.
Trouble in Mind continues through April 27 with performances at 3 pm and 8 pm Saturday, as well as 3 pm Sunday; take it here for schedule details and tickets ($20-$65).