Review: Trouble in Mind (The Artistic Home)

  
  

Race, Art collide in emotionally charged play

  
      

MannersWilettachair

  
The Artistic Home presents
  
Trouble in Mind
  
Written Alice Childress
Directed by
Vaun Monroe
at
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
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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
  
  

JudyWilettaJohn


Artists

 

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: Blues for an Alabama Sky (Greenetree Productions)

    

Elegy for the Renaissance

    

Kelly Owen as Angel Allen and Jaren Kyei Merrell as Guy Jacobs in "Blues For An Alabama Sky" at Chicago's Stage 773

   
Greenetree Productions presents
  
Blues for an Alabama Sky
  
Written by Pearl Cleage
Directed by
J. Israel Greene
at
Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont (map)
through September 19th  |  tickets: $20-$25   |  more info

Reviewed by K.D. Hopkins

Stage 773’s production of Blues for an Alabama Sky has all the trappings of a great play about an important chapter in African American history. Writer Pearl Cleage has a great pedigree for the subject matter and is a one of the authors given the hallowed Oprah Winfrey touch for “What Looks Like Crazy on an Ordinary Day”. The set is a gorgeous reproduction of 1930’s Harlem with lush draperies and dusty flocked Kelly Owens as Angel Allen in Pearl Cleage's "Blues for an Alabama Sky", playing in Chicago's Stage 773 through September 19th wallpaper. The costumes fit the period with beautiful rich fabric and spot on accessories. 

However, this play waits until the second act to start building a head of steam.

The play tells the story of a Harlem showgirl named Angel and her best friend Guy, who is a gay costume designer with dreams of Paris. They met in Savannah while both worked at a house of prostitution that catered to all tastes. Kelly Owens plays Angel, and she is a knockout. Ms. Owens portrays the roiling emotions of a woman who doesn’t have the luxury of being liberated and is forced to rely on her sexuality and the tenuous generosity of mobbed up club owners. Jaren Kyei Merrell plays the flamboyant take-no-prisoners Guy Jenkins who has recreated an identity as Guy du Paris. Merrell shines as a man with a dream. He sees that the Renaissance is starting to wane and that Paris is a place for Black people to have their artistic abilities appreciated. Akilah Terry as the sweet and formidable next-door neighbor Delia joins them. Her character is a social worker that has joined forces with Margaret Sanger to get a family planning clinic in Harlem. Ms. Terry plays Delia as virginal, formidable and knowing her own mind. She is costumed in a dowdy suit and hat, which is one of the best punch lines of the play. Rounding out this circle of friends is Lee Owens as Sam – the Harlem physician with a taste for partying, bootleg liquor, and a secret sideline as an abortionist. Into this mix comes a southern gentleman who is mourning his Alabama home for many reasons. Jason Smith plays the role of Leland Cunningham with a sly and deceptive sweetness that veils his character’s moral indignation and fundamentalism.

All of the actors do a fine job with the work that is given them. The problem with Blues for an Alabama Sky is the snail-like pacing. The curtain was ten minutes behind and then the first act was nearly 90 minutes long. If the action and dialog were at a better clip it might work much better, but it’s as if the ensemble has been directed for television with long pauses and extended dark time between scenes.

In the program notes, director J. Israel Greene speaks of the Harlem Renaissance as a simpler time that was rich in culture. Today’s times are parallel with the same societal inequities but he refers to the barricade of Jazz as if it put 1930’s Harlem in a hazy glow. I wish that he would have put some more of that jazz in this production. There is too much expository time in the first act, which makes the second act feel rushed and predictable. The character of Leland Cunningham turns from naïve southern gentleman to homophobic jerk at whiplash speed. It is too much of a stretch that Leland is blind to the fact that Guy is homosexual even if it is the 1930’s and he grew up in Alabama. Also, Angel’s storyline turns cliché when her pregnancy is treated as both an accident and insurance when her financial situation teeters.

Jaren Kyei Merrell as Guy Jacobs in Pearl Cleage's "Blues For An Alabama Sky", now playing in Chicago's Stage 773 through September 19, 2010

At the same time the storyline of Dr. Sam and Delia tiptoeing toward love is almost a throwaway motif. The social worker for family planning and the reluctant abortionist don’t get enough stage time for the plot to be anything other than a weak device to forward the climax of the play.

The most enjoyable scene in Alabama Sky occurs when Guy lets loose on Leland and Angel for playing it safe and small minded. Guy’s expressions are perfect, seemingly channeled directly from some awesome southern black woman. (You will want to use the line about saving the bear – trust me). By the time Mr. Merrell is allowed to really cut loose the play is over.

I recommend this play with some reservations. Be prepared for a long evening and do some reading on the Harlem Renaissance because much is alluded to but never fleshed out about this wonderful time in America’s history. I would also recommend that you check out some reading on the Black expatriate movement to get a bead on the cultural mood and the movement toward Paris.

   
   
Rating: ★★½
   
  

Blues for an Alabama Sky runs through September 19th. Performances are Thursday, Friday, and Saturday at 8:00pm and Sundays at 2:30. The play is presented at Stage 773 (formerly known as Theatre Building Chicago) at 1225 W. Belmont. For more information visit www.greenetreeproductions.com or call the box office at 773-327-5252.

Blues For An Alabama Sky set - Stage 773

   
  

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Review: Eclipse Theatre’s “A Song for Coretta”

The Way We Live Now: Promise and Disillusionment in Pearl Cleage’s “A Song for Coretta”

The cast of Pearl Cleage's 'A Song for Coretta', now being presented by Chicago's Eclipse Theatre Company

Eclipse Theatre Company returns to Pearl Cleage’s work with A Song for Coretta, after successfully featuring her as a playwright, novelist, and poet throughout their 2007 season. Eclipse’s 2007 production of her first play, Blues for an Alabama Sky, won several Jeff Awards, plus a Ruby Dee Award from the Black Theatre Alliance for the actress TayLar.. (who is presently playing the character of Helen in this production).

All the women in A Song for Coretta come to honor and memorialize Coretta Scott King on the rainy evening of her funeral at Ebenezer Baptist Church. But what can they do with Coretta’s memory, or memory of the Black Civil Rights era, in the face of the dire challenges that eviscerate their community today? Cleage strives to regenerate the meaningfulness of that memory in the presence of generational divisions, between those for whom the Civil Rights struggle is still within living memory and those for whom it either lives only as a stirring image of African American unity, or does not live at all, since its limited benefits are no match against today’s corrosive injustices.

A Song for Coretta TayLar is pitch-perfect as the stalwart, churchgoing Helen, the only mourner present who has actually met Coretta Scott King; Niccole Thurman’s Zora conveys an earnest college student, covering the funeral for NPR, who is completely unconscious of her own naïveté; Kelly Owens’ Mona Lisa, a resourceful, bohemian Katrina survivor, embodies the kind of soulfulness that truly suggests magic; Kristy Johnson’s Keisha is by turns fiery, obstinate, arrogant, and vulnerably lost; Ebony Wimb’s Gwen comes across as stiff, even for an Iraq War veteran, yet she maintains the power to convey Gwen’s trauma simply with her eyes.

No one can deny the gifts or intentionality of the cast. Still, there is only so much that talent and stagecraft can bring to an incomplete work. The trouble is that they are trying to do so much with so little—an interesting situation, since it stands in direct relation to the dilemmas faced by the characters.

As badly as we need a play like this, Cleage may be trying to pack too much into one act. The result is a severely abridged overview of the African American generation gap, plus gangsta culture, plus Katrina, plus the Iraq war. Sadly, this gives the play a “movie of the week” quality. Characters are introduced as emblems of issues, not in-depth characters in their own right, so the conflicts between them are superficially addressed, as are the issues they are supposed to represent. There are humorous as well as riveting moments, but nothing that comes close to the knowing wit and complex insight with which Cleage has regaled readers and audiences in the past.

Songs-for-Coretta-3 Part of the problem lies in how the Black Civil Rights era is remembered in the play. Much as we may love Helen–with her church lady demeanor, her tailored dress, her tightly coiffed helmet of gray hair, and her outrage over the current generation’s insolent sloppiness, ignorance, and apathy–her representation of that era belies all the dangers of perceiving it through rose-colored glasses. If Helen was a child during the Montgomery bus boycott, then surely she grew into adulthood during the 60s and 70s, during the rise of the Black Power movement, the assassinations of Dr. King, Malcolm X, JFK, and Robert Kennedy; during the equally devastating crisis of the Vietnam War. There is nothing halcyon about Helen’s past and therefore no real reason to have her only portray that past beatifically to Zora.

Likewise, Keisha’s role in the play is also troublesome. She is supposed to be emblematic of the unrealized promise of the struggle for civil rights. While war metaphors are linked, and rather stiltedly, through an exchange between Mona Lisa and Gwen over Katrina and Iraq, there is hardly any acknowledgement in the play of the gang war conditions that have ravished Keisha’s life of education, opportunity, or a sense of history. A few of her lines just barely suggest it: “Old people are always talking about somebody died for us. Well people die all the time nowadays, in case you hadn’t noticed, and it don’t even matter what for—they still just as dead.” This is why her decision to forego abortion is no more comforting than the song–“This Little Light of Mine”–the women sing together at the end. Both seem like band-aids on interminable problems.

One can only hope that A Song for Coretta is an embryo for future work. We sorely need playwrights like Pearl Cleage, who will question the value of freedom, especially if it only means being free to carry out the state’s imperialistic adventures. Indeed, as there are outlier studies which show that schools are more racially segregated now than during Jim Crow, then in the year 2009, in every way that truly matters, we may be back to square one.

Rating: ««

A Song For Coretta by Pearl Cleage
Buy Tickets
A Midwest Premiere
Directed by ensemble member Sarah Moeller
June 11 – July 26, 2009
at The Greenhouse Theater
2257 N. Lincoln Ave. Chicago
Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays at 8:30pm
Sundays at 3:30pm

Video footage of A Song for Coretta:   Video 1 and Video 2

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