“Trouble in Mind”: Nobody knows the stage stereotypes I’ve seen
Judy Durkin, Earnestine Phillips, Max Lawrence, Constance Jewell Lopez, Gerald C. Rivers | Ian Flanders

LOS ANGELES—The Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum (WGTB) production of Alice Childress’ Trouble in Mind came to me as a theatrical revelation. It is a classic “the worm turns” tale: Manners (Mark Lewis) is a bigshot white liberal Hollywood producer who is making his Broadway stage debut in order to make “serious art” with a play-within-the-play (likewise written by a Caucasian). Manners sincerely believes it’s a powerful, searing social statement and indictment of racism. Trouble, set in the 1950s, also hints that Manners may have fled Tinseltown to escape what is euphemistically called “the investigation”—the Hollywood Blacklist and House Un-American Activities Committee’s purging of so-called subversives (like WGTB founder Will Geer, who was blacklisted).

Willetta (the venerable Earnestine Phillips) plays an African-American actress who, in the first scene, seems to pooh-pooh the notion of theater as high art with a mission, as advocated by enthusiastic Broadway newcomer John (Max Lawrence who also does a superlative job portraying the workaholic steed Boxer in WGTB’s Animal Farm).

As Sheldon, Gerald C. Rivers (who for 20 years has graced WGTB’s Shakespearean and other productions and is best known for his depiction of Dr. Martin Luther King) portrays another Black actor who appears to “go-along-to-get-along.”

Judy Durkin, who depicted Juliet last year in WGTB’s updated version of the Bard’s romance about the world’s most famous star-crossed lovers, here plays the ingénue Judy, fresh out of Yale’s drama department. The youthful idealist is filled with well-meaning notions against racism who is thrilled to be making her stage premiere in an anti-lynching play. Among other things Trouble raises the vexing question of the “benevolent” whites—let alone the class-conscious Caucasians—and where do they fit in the whole racial dynamic?

Pay close attention to the deference Henry (Rodrick Jean-Charles), a 78-year-old gofer who appears to be Trouble’s most caricaturish character, pays to Willetta when she arrives at the theater for the first day of rehearsal. This is a tip-off: Underneath the veteran actress’ “it’s-just-a-paycheck” persona, the reverence Henry bestows upon Willetta indicates there’s more lurking beneath the surface of this stage veteran who has, like Hattie McDaniel, made a career out of portraying stereotypical servant roles. (Although McDaniel, who won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for portraying Mammy in 1939’s Gone With the Wind, also reputedly stated that she’d “rather play a maid than be a maid.”)

During the course of this two-acter, the characters are on a racial collision course. Despite his “liberal” attitudes, Manners is a typical upper-crust white male, used to the privilege and power bequeathed by America’s racial and class hierarchy, the product of genocide and slavery. He’s all for an “honest” exploration of racism in a play—as long as a Caucasian director and playwright retain control of the voyage of discovery. But he’s not so much in favor of deconstructing the racial power dynamics on the boards in his own theater, when the drama he’s directing is exposed as perpetuating its own timeworn stage stereotypes.

As the preening “I’m-so-noble-and-artsy” Manners, Lewis—who is also superb as Animal Farm’s likewise master pig Napoleon—stretches, his body full of creative tension, as he tries to whip his play into shape during the rehearsal process. But in this tragedy of Manners, he quickly reverts to type when his mystery is challenged, as Willetta’s worm turns over a plot point she believes to be not only impractical, but downright racist.

The essence of drama is conflict, and although there are certainly sparks a-flying in this play impeccably directed by Ellen Geer, the creative clash here revolves around ideas. Way ahead of her time, Childress boldly examined the issues of racial identity, representation and misrepresentation, misappropriation, tropes versus authenticity, and who should tell a story. Through her characters, plot and dialogue, Childress accomplishes something akin to what Donald Bogle, the preeminent scholar of celluloid stereotypes, does in film history books like Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mamies, & Bucks. Like a Harry Truman of drama, Childress seems to be shouting: “The bucks stop here!”

The issue of ethnic representation in the arts and entertainment remains complicated, contentious and fraught, as the #OscarsSoWhite controversy demonstrated in 2016, when so few Blacks were nominated for Academy Awards. Just consider these examples from the 1970s and just recently:

In 1973, when Marlon Brando won the Best Actor Oscar for The Godfather, Sacheen Littlefeather, who wore traditional indigenous garb and identified herself as an Apache onstage at the Academy Awards ceremony, declined the golden statuette on live TV on Brando’s behalf because of the movie industry’s mistreatment of Native Americans (see here). This was arguably Oscar’s greatest political moment, when instead of yet another celeb slapping himself on the back and thanking his agent, an artist gave his time on the live telecast to America’s aboriginal inhabitants to speak out, albeit for only about 2 minutes, as Littlefeather was interrupted by entitled racists angered that their self-congratulatory orgy was being disrupted by an injection of reality. (See Brando’s blistering excoriation of white racism vis-à-vis North America’s Natives on Dick Cavett’s program here.)

However, unlike Don Corleone, Marlon Brando did not have a drop of Italian blood. At the same time he criticized Hollywood for its demeaning, abusive depiction of tribal people, the Italian-American Civil Rights League attacked Brando for portraying people of Italian origin as mobsters. However, the League was widely considered to be a front for the Mafia, and Littlefeather’s identification as an Apache was disputed.

Another complicated example recently took place on HBO’s Real Time, when host Bill Maher used what is now called “the N word.” Much to his credit, in the following week’s show, Maher apologized and invited noteworthy African Americans on the program to “school” him in the use of “the N word” and race matters. Among them was the rapper/actor Ice Cube, who rocketed to fame as part of the rap group NWA. Now, I ask you, what does the “N” stand for in NWA?

My point simply is that the issue of ethnic representation and misrepresentation is extremely complex and confusing. Self-determination in the arts means the self—not the “other”—determining how it is depicted. What I liked about WGTB’s presentation of this extremely thoughtful and entertaining play, that was clairvoyant for its time, is that I had never heard of Alice Childress or her play. It is much to WGTB’s credit that it is bringing the first African-American female playwright to have a play professionally produced on the New York stage, and her drama Trouble in Mind, to mind. (And as the United Negro College Fund’s slogan put it, that “is a terrible thing to waste.”)

The fact that this is taking place in the same season that Rogue Machine mounted the Africa-set Les Blancs by Lorraine Hansberry (the first African-American female playwright to have a play produced on the Great White Way) and Hamilton, with its multi-culti cast, is opening in Los Angeles is a hopeful sign.

As is that stalwart of stage and screen Earnestine Phillips’ profound portrayal of Willetta. I’ve seen her perform Will Shakespeare and in WGTB’s To Kill a Mockingbird, and Phillips, who is always good, has never been better than she is here. It’s extremely important for an African-American woman to play the lead role in a drama and this proves, to paraphrase Oscar Wilde, the importance of being Earnestine!

Trouble in Mind is playing in repertory through Sept. 30 at Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum: 1419 N. Topanga Canyon Blvd., Topanga, Calif. 90290. For repertory schedule and other information call: (310) 455-3723 or see WGTB. Check out the “Under the Oaks” series of four concerts coming up at WGTB on Friday nights in September.

As part of the “Ten Films That Shook the World” series celebrating the Russian Revolution’s centennial, film historian/reviewer Ed Rampell is co-presenting Aleksandr Dovzhenko’s revolutionary poetic classic Earth on Fri., Aug. 25 at 7:30 pm at the L.A. Workers Center, 1251 S. St. Andrews Pl., Los Angeles 90019. For info: laworkersedsoc@gmail.com.


Ed Rampell
Ed Rampell

Ed Rampell is an L.A.-based film historian/critic and co-organizer of the 70th Anniversary Commemoration of the Hollywood Blacklist.