Old jazz music filled the pitch-black Mayan Hall and lazily made its way towards the blind audience. Sauntering through the aisles, piano notes grazed everyone’s ears. Lyrics sang of struggling times, the perfect precursor to a play within a play.
“Trouble in Mind,” written in 1955 by African-American actress Alice Childress, is a dramatic comedy that bloomed during a time when heavy racial tension plagued the country.
Playing at the Moxie Theatre in San Diego during February, SWC hosted the play for two nights in Mayan Hall in celebration of Black History Month.
Before the play began, the audience was bathed in darkness. A lone dusty Edison light sitting at the end of the stage slowly illuminated the stage, when a sharp knock shocked the music into silence and Willeta Mayer, played by Monique Gaffney, rushed to center stage.
With wide-eyed, childlike wonder she peered into the stage lights, picturing herself receiving a standing ovation. She then began her sympathetic banter with the aging doorman Henry (Tom Kilroy), who, despite his indecipherable Irish accent, resembled an old endearing neighbor. Quickly joined by John Nevins (Vimel Sephus), the inexperienced but classically trained actor, Willeta warned him to keep his head down and play the role society expects of him, which gave the first bout of tension that the audience would experience.
Their conversation would have felt more real if it was not for the stilted, tense way that John spoke. It was difficult to discern whether the character was overly articulate or the actor was merely stiff. The morose content of the conversation was still palpable, but felt shortchanged with the tone of his dialogue.
Like a ball of verve, a petite Millie Davis (Cashae Monya), draped in a fur coat, flounced onto the stage. She was magnetic and one could not help but look past Judith Sears (Samantha Ginn) a nervous lone white actress and a towering Sheldon Forrester (Victor Morris) who trailed her on the stage. Willeta’s wit was the rolling thunder to Millie’s attitude, which was quick and sharp as lightning as the two argued about their place as black actresses in New York in the 1950s.
As the haughty animated director Al Manners (Ruff Yeager) strolled onto stage and began explaining his narrow-minded vision of the production, the audience could see the sinking feeling rise on their faces, as they realized that they would only play the roles of domestics and butlers on the legendary Broadway stage.
Act I of the play was generally comedic, but it had a veil of light-heartedness that covered the seed of racial tension, which slowly grew to consume the play’s entirety.
Once the second act began, the play took a sharp turn into the dramatic.
A thick tension slowly simmered as the play advanced. Actors wore masks of smiles with body language of quiet anger showing their distaste. Willeta, however, proved a force to be reckoned with, the clench of her jaw and the frustration that flashed across her face felt as clear as if she was standing at arm’s length.
A particular moment that drew the air from the hall was when Sheldon described a lynching he witnessed as a child. Lights softened and focused on him as he brushed aside the present and dug deep into his memory. He described the event so vividly that the room began to feel claustrophobic.
Thoughts of the unimaginable terror reminded theatregoers that this unfortunate truth was all too real.
Following Sheldon’s haunting recollection, it felt as if though the cast was killing time. What was meant to titillate was beginning to bore the audience. Pages of dialogue should have been delivered in fewer lines to accentuate the underlying angst.
After tension consumed the entirety of the play, it was assumed Willeta’s defiant outburst aimed at the director would be the end, but it dragged, leaving loose ends. Although occasionally flawed in their delivery, the actors communicated a poignant story of hopelessness and frustration that left an unshakeable feeling of awareness and dread that faded shortly after leaving the theatre.
It did not feel like the play was completely done. There was no tidy ending to validate the struggles of the characters. Perhaps that was the point. Its ending left a suffocating feeling of unease in the air, with the realization that the inequality faced by minorities to this day does not end once the cast bows and audience members clap.