had it in my class several times — was I couldn’t understand why the play wasn’t getting produced today because it’s so timely. A few theaters are now beginning to
do it. It just seems like the play dropped off of the radar for a long time.”
Trouble in Mind has a simple plot that has layers of unreality and truths that are peeled away like the layers of an onion.
“The story is about this group of African American actors, all of whom know each other, who are coming together to rehearse a play that Mr. Manners, the white
director, has found,” Adell said. “The play is called ‘Chaos in Belleville.’ It was written by a white playwright. And the conflict is about the negative representations of
the Black characters in the play within the play. Wiletta, who is played by Theola Carter, wants the script changed. And Mr. Manners is refusing. They are having
these conflicts throughout the story.”
Wiletta is a theater veteran who is finally going to get her chance to star in a Broadway play, but she would have to sell out completely in order to accomplish her life-
“Wiletta’s extremely talented,” Carter said. “But given the time and the period, 1954-1955, when you look at how they portrayed Black actors and actresses, she didn’
t really have the opportunity to be the type of actress that she really wanted to be, that one who really stood out. This was her opportunity because she has the lead in
this show, even though I am the lead in the show. It’s that character within a character. It’s not the role that she wants. I think I like the fact that Wiletta, in the end,
becomes more of a theater activist. She knew these things all the time and now she is at the point of, ‘Nope, we’re not going to be doing this Tomming.’ She gets into
her euphony where she did it to get along. She probably made some money along the way. She did whatever she had to do. And then she said it wasn’t an accurate
portrayal of how African Americans are. She was sick and tired of being sick and tired in the theater.”
Wiletta’s foil is Al Manners, a Hollywood producer who is full of himself and has his first opportunity to direct a Hollywood play. He wants realism, as long as it is his
and Hollywood’s perception of what is real for African Americans.
“He’s really excited about it, partially because it is a ‘message’ play,” said Paul Lorentz, who plays Al Manners. “He really believes this is going to be a play that
bridges the chasm between races and contributes to equality. He believes this and he is very driven about it. He’s enlisted a lot of African American actors with
whom he has worked previously, including the lead character Wiletta whom he refers to as his ‘sweetheart’ all the time. He panders to them and doesn’t seem very
self-aware about what he is doing. He’s really good at ‘artist-speak.’ He has a lot of words and it’s enough to have everyone’s head spinning and then he moves on
to the next thing before they figure out what he said was absolutely gibberish. Al Manners believes his own baloney.”
And it is the dynamics between Wiletta and Al Manners that sparks the emotions and the truths that the play reveals.
“This is a scathing critique of the whole Broadway Theater scene and not just Broadway, but the way that Black folks were represented for years,” Adell said. “Think
about this whole blackface thing that has come up now. It’s ongoing. But most of the time, what the Black actors got were these roles as maids and mammies and
everything all the way through the 1960s and 1970s. In the play within the play, they ham it up. And that is part of the problem that Wiletta is having with it. ‘Chaos in
Belleville’ is a play about a lynching. And her complaint is that the mother of the boy, who is about to be lynched because he is trying to vote, is singing and ironing
clothes while the lynch mob is on its way to get him. That’s what Wiletta is complaining about. It’s not believable is her argument. That’s where the clash happens.
What are the ramifications with this confronting of a director of a Broadway show? What are the ramifications for the other actors, both Black and white?”
The ramification for John Nevins, played by Pherow Drain, is perhaps an early awakening to the reality of the plight of African American actors, an awakening to his
own situation. While Drain is pleased to just be on Broadway, his first theatrical performance, he grows up quickly.
“John is a suave character,” Drain said. “I feel like he tries to use that to maneuver this space and achieve this big dream and goal. And I think at the beginning of
the play, he believes that the social climate is not going to affect him or deter him. And as the play goes on, he starts to realize that he can’t just ‘smooth’ his way
through it. He is also a victim just as much as anyone else and by the end of the play, he realizes that he has to play an active role in trying to do what is right. He’s
interesting. Like I said, I think by the end of the play, it finally clicks. He makes this switch. He is definitely an interesting character. I think who were assigned to as
characters are a really good match for all of us.”
The other young actor for whom Chaos in Belleville is her first production is Judy Sears, played by Mikayla Mrochek. Sears is a privileged white woman who
exhibits a certain level of naiveté and is torn between her abhorrence of what is being portrayed and her proclivity to follow — and believe in — the director’s every
“She’s funny,” Mrochek said. “The things I like about Judy are she is smart and ambitious. She is educated. And she is eager to please. But she comes in kind of
naïve at the top of the show. She’s never been in show business before and I think she is under the impression that everyone is going to get along and it’s going to
be so great. She is going to have an in with everyone because of her progressive views. And that’s not the case. I don’t think that Judy has ever come face-to-face
with anything like this before. I don’t think she has directly encountered racism in her life. I think she has lived a sheltered life. And so seeing the ugly reality come to
life on stage in theater, which she loves, is kind of a wake-up call to her. I think she comes away with some kind of realization at the end of the show. I don’t know if
she fully realizes the impact of everything yet. I would like to think that somewhere in the future, Judy is thinking back on this experience and it is helping her.”
In the face of abject racism, the African American characters cope with it in different ways.
“The actors fall on a spectrum of reactions to Wiletta’s efforts,” Adell said. “The young man is fresh out of acting school, so he wants to ingratiate himself to Mr.
Manners. But there is a crucial moment where he realizes that he’s been a fool. Wiletta knows the ropes. She is a veteran actress and she has been around in TV
and movies and stage and is totally cynical. She is trying to explain to him the ropes. And there is Sheldon Forrester and his thing is, ‘Look, I just need a gig. I need a
job.’ The stakes are different for all of them. Martha White’s character is a pretentious Black woman. She’s the wife of a dining room waiter. She pretends that she
doesn’t need to work, but at the end, she’s upset because actually she does have to work.”
Trouble in Mind is an excellent stage production that works on so many different levels.
Next issue: Black theater in Madison