"Race—it's an explosive subject."
I have that quote in my notes, underlined twice, from opening night of Intiman's Trouble in Mind, one of four productions the repertory company is rotating through this summer. Uttered without any irony by a white man directing a cast of black actors, it conjures images of George Zimmerman, a hoodie-clad Trayvon Martin, Oscar Grant waiting for a BART train, Rodney King, Martin Luther King Jr. Explosive? Yeah, you could say that.
Despite being written in the 1950s, Alice Childress’s Obie-winning Trouble In Mind, a satrirical drama about a racially integrated acting company, rings as true today as ever. Yet not many people know the work of Childress. None of her plays ever made it to Broadway, and she may have suffered from some of the same prejudices that plagued her characters. That's why Seattle director Valerie Curtis-Newton took it upon herself to introduce our city to the writer's quick wit and emotionally complex characters. "I am an unabashed fan of Alice Childress," Curtis-Newton writes in her director's note. "Simply put, she writes the kind of plays I want to direct. Passionate. Tender. Fierce and funny. ... We are thoroughly entertained even as she pricks our conscience."
The stage is set for a play within a play—a drama about a young black man who faces a lynch mob because of his convictions and a desire to vote. Making his Broadway debut is Hollywood director Al Manners (Tim Gouran), who claims to be pals with his cast, but seems better acquainted with power trips and ignorance. And though the castmembers try to stay true to themselves, they find themselves conforming to stereotype, to mammy roles and "yessirs," until one decides to speak out. It's amazing that this show was written more than a half-century ago—the dialogue stands the test of time. Powerful performances by Tracy Michelle Hughes as Wiletta, the veteran black singer who wants only to be heard and respected as an actress, and G. Valmont Thomas as Sheldon, a yes man who suppresses his dark past, left us craving even more theater. More Childress.
Intiman's Trouble in Mind
Thru Sept 15, Cornish Playhouse (formerly Intiman Playhouse), $20–$50