Review: Trouble in Mind (The Artistic Home)


Race, Art collide in emotionally charged play



The Artistic Home presents
Trouble in Mind
Written Alice Childress
Directed by
Vaun Monroe
The Artistic Home, 3914 N. Clark (map)
through March 20  |  tickets: $28  |  more info

Reviewed by Keith Ecker 

While watching the Artistic Home’s engaging production of Trouble in Mind, I couldn’t help but think of Spike Lee‘s 2000 satire “Bamboozled. For those unfamiliar, the movie revolves around a black television writer who is frustrated with the depictions of African-Americans in entertainment. In an effort to sabotage his career and the network, he pitches the concept of a modern-day minstrel show to his colleagues. Rather than balk, they bite. Two inner-city black men are plucked from obscurity and shoved into the limelight to serve as the show’s stars. The sitcom is a hit, but not without ample psychic costs to those involved.

MillieJohnHowever, where “Bamboozled” is deficient in summarizing the Catch-22 that is financial success and artistic compromise, trailblazing playwright Alice Childress succinctly and effectively attacks the matter—nearly 50 years before Lee’s attempt.

Trouble in Mind takes place in 1957. A mixed cast is about to start rehearsals for what the business terms a "colored" play. We are introduced to the passionate, self-taught Wiletta Mayer (Velma Austin), a black actress who will be filling the role of the mother. John Nevins (Armand Fields), an educated but green actor, enters. Mayer gives him tips on how to act around white theater professionals. Her advice amounts to doing what you’re told, laughing at the appropriate times and, in general, acting pleasant. It’s information she will later regret.

The play is directed by a domineering no-nonsense white director named Al Manners (John Mossman). Al exhibits every stereotypical laughable trait attributed to his ilk. He uses flowery, overwrought language and overly intellectualizes the dramatic process. Meanwhile, the content of the play is chock full of dumbed-down racist conventions with characters written to be pitied. It’s the kind of piece that leaves the presumably white audience feeling morally superior to their racist white brethren. But despite the fact that they play such laughably unrealistic characters, the black actors go along with the script because, unfortunately, a part is a part.

Trouble arises when Wiletta’s character instructs her son, who is on the run from an angry white lynch mob, to surrender. Wiletta feels the action is disingenuous. Al is unmoved by her requests to reconsider the script. Instead, the two get into a heated argument that serves as the emotionally charged climax of the play.

MannersJohn WilettaSheldon
WilettaManners MannersWilettachair

The actors in this production give it their all. Austin fills her role with a great passion, turning up the ferocity as Wiletta’s frustration mounts. Meanwhile, Mossman is repulsive, yet sympathetic and even likeable, as the blindly driven director. The actors all appear exceptionally present in their roles, constantly emoting and reacting to the slightest action on stage.

One qualm I have – I do wish the performers would pause a bit more during some of the audience’s heartier laughs. It is very easy to miss a line or two of dialogue, much of which is so rich in content and humor that it’s a shame for it to go unheard. In addition, some might find the play tedious due to its lack of external action. Instead, the story arc audience’s are accustomed to is relegated to Wiletta’s internal struggle with her role.

The Artistic Home‘s Trouble in Mind is a solid production. Thespians and lay audiences alike will enjoy the self-deprecating nature of the play’s humor. But the larger takeaway is the message that when it comes to race and entertainment, rarely are issues black and white.

Rating: ★★★½




Featuring Guest Artist Velma Austin and Ensemble Member John Mossman; as well as Ensemble Members Frank Nall and Eustace Allen; and Guest Artists Kim Chelf, Armand Fields, Tom Lally, Cola Needham and Kelly Owens.

Director: Vaun Monroe
Assistant Director: A.J. Ware
Stage Manager: Loretta Rode
Assistant Stage Manager: Maggie Neumeyer
Dramaturg: Matt Ciavarella
Set Designer: Joseph Riley
Lighting Designer: Jess Harpenau
Costume Designer: Lynn Sandburg
Prop Designer: Lindsay Monahan
Sound Designer: Adam Smith  

Playwright: Alice Childress



Review: Bertolt Brecht’s “Baal”

Going On a Tear With Bertolt Brecht


EP Theater presents:

by Bertolt Brecht
directed by A.J. Ware and Hunter Kennedy
through October 3rd (ticket info)

reviewed by Paige Listerud

One thing you can say about EP Theater’s production of Baalthey do nothing by halves. They flounder and flop like a fish out of water in the first act, only to snap into riveting concentration and power with the second.

Written in 1918, when Bertolt Brecht was twenty years young, snapping a whip against his thigh as he accosted women in the streets, Baal clearly shows Decadent and Aesthetic movement influences—the dark side of 19th century Romanticism. Its action is raw and scandalous; its language is thickly poetic – so thickly poetic that character motives can be obscured. So if the actor hasn’t made clear choices about what the words mean, there’s no way the audience will ever deduce it. It’s a production you can both love and hate, kind of like the eponymous character himself.

But, in the final analysis, what’s not to love about two bad-boy artists tearing through women, booze, money, towns, and finally each other–violating every convention, assaulting morality to the last breath? It’s been quite while since I’ve witnessed dramatic characters with this much absolute thinking and vehement passion. That’s what makes it so groovy. The addition of The Loneliest Monk, a Chicago rock-art duo, playing a live original score, creates the perfect unifying and satisfying bohemian touch.

What’s not so groovy is the monstrously amateurish first act. “We tweaked and tweaked and tweaked the writing to get it to the point it is now,” says Executive Director, Jason Ewers. “There were scene sections we just didn’t know what to do with. But what attracted us to this early Brecht work was just how raw it was.”

Perhaps then, that obnoxious term, work-in-progress, still applies here. The actors still have to gain better mastery of Brecht’s language. Some actors do not have the heft and projection to deliver it, while others attempt to build dramatic tension by shouting lines. The ensemble cast is cohesive and meaningfully responsive to each other, but work on clarifying and personalizing the subtext to all that heavy-duty poetry remains the bulk of unfinished work for the first act.

Thank goodness the difference between first and second acts is like night and day. Thank goodness A. J. Ware and Hunter Kennedy’s direction brings on full-bore pansexuality, as well as the physical and emotional devastations of amoral excess. Baal and Ekart are a fabulously doomed couple, even if Baal is the more fabulously doomed of the two.

Finally, it needs some nudity. Seriously. That’s not a prurient suggestion. Okay, it is. But is it in keeping with the spirit of Decadence.

One can shake ones’ head in astonishment at the way this particular show swings from depths to great heights, but no one can deny EP Theater’s ability to take risks. Its capacity for daring and risk wins it respect, even with this significantly flawed and unfinished production.

Rating: ««